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Elusive Signs: Bruce Nauman Works with Light (MIT Press) Paperback – March 3, 2006

4.7 out of 5 stars 3 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

About the Author

Joseph Ketner II is Chief Curator at the Milwaukee Art Museum.

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Product Details

  • Series: MIT Press
  • Paperback: 100 pages
  • Publisher: The MIT Press (March 3, 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0944110835
  • ISBN-13: 978-0944110836
  • Product Dimensions: 9.5 x 0.2 x 11 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,627,577 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Format: Paperback
In contrast to other reviewers' reactions, I found Gregory Volk's provocative piece in this book to be a perspective-enlarging and intellectually refreshing experience. Volk steps outside of the parochialism of the art world to draw parallels with literature in a way that surprised and delighted me. Even if Nauman has never read Dickinson and Emerson, their work is still relevant to invoke in discussions about his art because the transcendentalist writers have helped shape the American cultural context, and their contributions have become part of the "collective unconscious" from which our artists draw. And more importantly, it creates a fascinating lens through which to view Nauman's work, emphasizing aspects of the work that don't come into focus through more traditional approaches.

Volk convincingly argues that "Nauman taps into a particularly visionary strain of artmaking in this country" and draws parallels with Emerson's focus on "core-level matters of what it means to be a human being; his mix of cerebral investigation and hard-hitting emotions; and his consistent ability to find fresh, oftentimes highly unorthodox methods for delving into his concerns". Volk creatively explores the implications of these parallels throughout his essay, and at times his cross-disciplinary analysis is so striking that the insights themselves feel transcendent. An example is when Volk points to Dickinson's exhortation, "Tell the truth, but tell it slant; success in circuit lies;" this line is so startlingly apt for describing Nauman's neon work that it provoked a mental gasp when I read it.
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Format: Paperback
This beautifully produced catalogue provides a comprehensive look at one aspect of Nauman's work--perhaps the most visually seductive but also the most aggressively provocative: his neon. It provides a means of focussing on the themes that run throughout this artists' diverse production, while providing an impetus for going back to see how those themes play out in the rest of his work. As for the catalog essays, I found both Ketner's and Volk's essays to be 'enlightening': Ketner clearly knows the artist's work well, and can situate it within the artist's ongoing concerns with visual and written language, whereas Volk's imaginative and lively contribution examines the neon works in the broader realm of American popular culture and literature. Kraynak's essay reads like the dissertation excerpt it is, and, while pedestrian, is not uninformative.

Although I learned from all three writers, I feel that more attention should have been paid to the issue of beauty vs. vulgarity, elegance vs. 'hard-sell' commercialism in the neon work. All of the writers deal well with the elusive nature of Nauman's signs, but give short shrift to the medium itself. It's as though the gorgeous catalogue design itself had to attest to the beauty of the neon sculptures! Nonetheless, with this one caveat, this is a valuable addition to the literature on Nauman, and it must have been one striking exhibition!
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Format: Paperback
If you want to see Bruce Nauman's art with fresh eyes, read the excellent essays in this book by Joseph Ketner, Janet Kraynak, and Gregory Volk, each of whom approach Nauman's light works from a distinctive angle. In a deliberately provocative gesture, Volk starts his essay with a bravura reading of one of Emily Dickinson's famously elliptical poems in which she compares a crisis of faith---that lofty thing that gnawed at so many nineteenth-century minds---to a carnival being disassembled before vanishing from view, leaving nothing but "miles of Stare." Placing a postmodern visual artist like Nauman side by side with a nineteenth-century poet may seem unlikely, even jarring, but if you're willing to step outside the confines of conventional art criticism into the kind of intellectual extravagance at which Volk excels, you will not be disappointed. The great thing about his essay is that it expands our contextual framework. Given that Nauman's use of language is so central to his artistic practice, it makes excellent sense to draw connections with literary texts. And it's perfectly clear that Volk is not by any means suggesting some kind of simplistic equation between Dickinson's poetry and Nauman's art. Instead, he helps us see how Nauman's work is in dialogue with the enduring strain of Emersonian questing that continues to mark American culture. On top of all that, this playful, jargon-free essay is a pleasure to read, with illuminating commentary on many of the specific works included in the exhibit.
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