What is a notebook, if not a place that has no real identity until occupied; a place to put ideas, not an idea in itself? In “Understanding Coincidence in the Multiverse,” a solo show currently on view at Austin’s Ivester Contemporary, Candace Hicks troubles this notion in sculptural texts that assert the identity and even agency of the page.
Known especially for her exploration of books as a form and a subject, in her exhibition at Ivester, Hicks adds to a body of work that she has iterated continually throughout the past two decades. A professor at Stephen F. Austin State University since 2012, Hicks has works included in the collections of multiple major museums, libraries and universities throughout the U.S.
Since at least 2009, in series entitled “Common Threads” and “String Theory,” Hicks has created handmade, hand-embroidered canvas notebooks that certainly can be seen as representations of composition books, but also — astoundingly — function as the books themselves, with pages that turn and readable text, all painstakingly rendered in thread on cloth. Although Hicks also creates work in other media, these sewn texts have remained central to her practice.
The show at Ivester features two oversized volumes of “String Theory,” made all the more powerful by their placement in the context of a different, newer series. Entitled “Notes for String Theory,” these more diminutive pieces — the real size and shape of a single notebook page — line the gallery walls. Each page presents an array of embroidered, pale-blue lines that cross a (usually) vertical axis stitched in red.
On these pages, no words appear. But the lines themselves speak, rebelling from their traditional placements to form funnels, kite strings, and wild zigzags. In some pieces, stitching creates trompe l’oeil forms that emerge from the phantom grid like fault lines or centipedes. What might a page choose to be if it had its druthers? No longer objects or vessels, these stitched pages break free from the associative glue of language – which, as it happens, is the primary concern of the larger bookworks featured in the show.
One of those volumes — “String Theory: The Compendium” — sits open to a center page on a slanted shelf like a lectern just across from the gallery entrance. Conspicuously absent: any glass, gloves, or instructions not to touch the art. At the opening reception, early visitors looked at each other as if to question, can I turn the pages? Later, others did, trying their best to handle only the edges, as if flipping an LP.
Hicks’ larger bookworks can exist in bound form, with the fastening of three buckles on the spine, or as deconstructions: a sequence of bifolds hanging one after another in midair. The exhibition at Ivester presents its second bookwork — “String Theory: A Consideration” — in this way. This mode foregrounds the weight of the book and the volume it occupies in the air, its canvas bowed out with hanging so that each bifold resembles a pair of wings. Lacking the lightness of birds, they bring to mind a squadron of manta rays gliding through water.
Though playful, the textual content of Hicks’ books can be heavy, too. The gallery’s introduction to the show describes Hicks’ work as “based on reading fiction.” Sounds simple enough – until one thinks about how endlessly diverse the worlds contained by the words “reading” and “fiction” can be. Hicks meditates on how reading invites endless cross-referencing, how one book always leads to thoughts of another, and how those co-incidences of meaning can feel caused as much as correlated.
Near the end of “String Theory: A Consideration,” Hicks wonders about causation with terror that recalls Camus on the pages that recount her meeting with Gary Rough, an artist friend of Kurt Vonnegut’s, shortly after she had secretly expressed (in another notebook) a fear that, in following a chain of thinking across texts, she might have been the cause of Vonnegut’s death:
“But the whole time he was telling me this moving story I was unbelievably distracted, because my notebook that he was already holding in his hand but had not yet opened began with the line, ‘I’m fairly certain that I killed Kurt Vonnegut.’”
Perhaps, Hicks suggests, it’s not just readers who have minds of their own, but reading, almost like an organism composed of many reader/writers.
On the backs of the flying bifolds in the gallery, Hicks plays freely with three-dimensional space, treating the books more broadly as quilted objects. Folds in the canvas conspire with embroidery, on one panel, to create the impression of a wormhole that tunnels through the surface of the page toward some other reality, some other text.
But Hicks’ final image isn’t so recursive. The back of the final bifold depicts a black hole — and an open door. At play in the field of reading, Hicks refuses to foreclose on anything.
“Candace Hicks: Understanding Coincidence in the Multiverse” continues through Feb. 25 at Ivester Contemporary, Canopy, 916 Springdale Road. ivestercontemporary.com