Elizabeth Dove’s birthweight exhibit includes a series of three-dimensional resin molds of a gingerbread house, titled “Embedded.” The molds are filled with Dove’s signature text dust, individually clipped words taken from news articles about Iraq.
When Elizabeth Dove gets going, she speaks a mile a minute. She’s faster than an auctioneer, introducing and then circling back to some of the recurring themes of her multi-faceted exhibit currently on display at the Missoula Art Museum. The more she talks, it’s clear that Dove, a printmaking and photography professor at the University of Montana, attaches profound and varied nuances of meaning and thoughtfulness to her work. There’s talk of dualities—mind and body, nature and nurture, structure and chaos, known and unknown—and life’s uncertainty, to a sense of place and family. And as she continues, as the words pile up, Dove noticeably catches how much she’s talking and stops cold. She looks at the title piece of her exhibit, birthweight, and just stares at it for a second.
“Is it your turn yet?” she asks a visitor. “Can this be more of a conversation than an interview?”
In a way, it already is. The title piece of her exhibit, which features a stretched section of gauze-like fabric across MAM’s two third-floor bridges, sags in the center under the weight of a heap of tiny slivers of paper, each one an individual word clipped from a dictionary. It’s what Dove terms “text dust,” and it’s as if everything Dove’s just said—her artist’s statement times ten—sits right there, a jumbled transcription in carefully cut scraps. She doesn’t say it outright, but Dove appears to prefer the pile to do the speaking for her.
“I think it symbolizes potential,” she says. “We have this perpetual search for meaning, we have to sift through huge quantities of information, but it’s almost impossible to grasp it all. Like a dictionary is supposed to have everything—it’s all right there in one volume, and yet we can’t fully grasp it all. We just can’t, and we struggle with understanding all of it.”
Credit Dove with introducing one of the more intriguing and cleverly defined elements in local art. Her signature “text dust” accents multiple pieces in birthweight, and it’s an apt way not only for the artist to introduce her personal commentaries, but to also draw in curious onlookers.
For instance, in “Dwell,” Dove presents a series of photographs depicting a tiny gingerbread house dwarfed by different environments—perched on an ending sidewalk, in a back alley, and on a pile of dirt. The images, which clearly convey the safe, sweet confines of home being threatened by larger forces, are shot using a special glass lens, called a Lensbaby, that allows the bellows to be manipulated to create an odd distortion and an added sense of vulnerability. Dove complements “Dwell” with a series of three-dimensional resin molds of the same gingerbread house filled with free-flowing text dust, this time consisting of words like “killing,” “bomb” and “attack.” Dove clipped the words from Iraq war news articles, and titles the work “Embedded.”
“I’m clearly not the type of artist who makes protest art that’s right in your face,” says Dove, who connects our comparably docile domiciles to the ongoing turmoil abroad with the piece. “This isn’t as strident as I can be, but it’s as strident as I’m going to be right now. I don’t want to be certain about anything. I don’t want to draw conclusions, because I’m not sure what they would be. But again, it’s all language, media, how we’re learning about these things, how we’re desensitized to certain language now. It’s all a part of it.”
Dove also uses text dust in the fourth part of her exhibit, “Beyond Words,” but in a reverse format. Rather than focusing on a dictionary’s written definitions, she cut out all 3,200 illustrations from a copy of Merriam-Webster’s Third New International Edition and presents them in order side-by-side. The illustrations range from postage stamp-size animals to full-page astrological maps, and together fill most of the available wall space in MAM’s smallest gallery. The gutted dictionary appears on display, as well.
“This piece makes tangible the limits of language,” Dove writes in her artist statement. “It asks several questions: what is chosen for illustration? when is an image needed? what is beyond words to explain or define?”
Dove isn’t interested in answering the questions. In typical professorial fashion, she floats something poignant out there and lets others kick it around. She’s the same way when discussing her work—everything is an either/or proposition, a paradox, and she seems much more comfortable bouncing around another viewer’s impressions than her own.
In fact, as Dove explains her work at MAM on a recent Saturday afternoon, she’s interrupted by the site of a grade-schooler across the room curiously poking one of the molded houses in “Embedded.” Drawn in by the texture, the student then cranes his neck to read some of the text seen inside the piece.
“It’s funny—I spent most of [the exhibit’s opening] just watching how people entered the space and what they were drawn to,” says Dove, who used the last year to tailor her work to MAM’s specific galleries. “I didn’t really end up talking to many people, except some friends… Maybe I should have, but I was more fascinated by where people spent their time, what they saw first. It was my own little anthropological study.”
The exercise confirmed what Dove already knew.
“It’s hard to talk about [the work] at this point,” she says. “I’m more curious to hear what other people think. That’s why it’s here, right? …I think I’m ready to let the work speak for itself.”
Elizabeth Dove’s birthweight is on display at the Missoula Art Museum through Saturday, Jan. 5, 2008. There will be a discussion with the artist at Artini: Read Between the Lines Thursday, Nov. 15, at 5:30 PM.