A Review of Current Recorder As you enter Billy Friebele’s Current Recorder at Hamiltonian Gallery, you are first confronted by a series of 32 colorful ink drawings, some framed and others clipped to the wall. On them, unidentifiable orbs moving in orbit around a large void cut out of the center of the paper, the image calls to mind illustrations of solar systems or on the atomic level, electrons and their path around a nucleus. Though initially unclear, no doubt, these works emit a scientific or diagrammatic quality.
The origin of these incredible drawings is revealed once you enter the separated space located in the back of the gallery. In the center of the room is a large helicopter-like apparatus built out of found objects, with an old crutch serving as the propeller shaft and a shopping cart as the base. A viewer’s approach trips the motion detectors that activate fans, causing the kinetic sculpture to come alive. The video on a nearby monitor reveals the contraption’s purpose, that it is in fact, a mobile horizontal windmill that is able to generate a visual representation of wind currents.
To have drawings made by a machine that is a slave to chance, is an overt attempt by the artist to remove artistic skill from a critical part of the art-making process. Similar to his Windrawings: I, in which he used pens tied to balloons to generate another series of drawings, both projects are about creating automatic processes that render the artist’s hand invisible. While he’s probably not consciously critiquing formalism and expressionism, it is the same impulse out of which conceptual art and later process-oriented practices emerged, a suspicion of intuition and the personal. By doing this, he seems to acknowledge the emptiness of a purely formal, artistic endeavor. Friebele has in a way created the classic post-modern project by forcing the mark to reference something outside of itself, even though it is non-representational.
But it is a double-edged sword because while we can appreciate the loveliness of the images in the Current exhibition, knowing how they were made, for me renders the drawings trivial. It is akin to finding pleasure in the contour lines in a topographic map or the color pattern on a scientific chart. But this critique is problematic still because even as the image that is generated by the machine aspires to be in possession of the aura of data, these drawings are not actually useful as a scientific resource. The information recorded is not quantifiable. Arbitrary decisions and an overwhelming number of unaccounted for variables (the effect of different pen sizes and ink amounts for example) only muddy what is actually getting captured. Thus, the resulting object on paper is only seemingly endowed with the authority of science.
While discussions of mark making and meaning, and even the debate about human expression versus mechanical processes are interesting, all that is really beside the point. This exhibition is a reflection of a generation’s struggle with the past and the various definitions that have been asserted about what is and should be art. Though there are elements of the exhibition that are conceptually unresolved, the spirit of experimentation still holds true, and it’s artists like Friebele who, by pushing the boundaries of what it means to “make art” and what a work is suppose to “represent,” create new and uncomfortable spaces which must be confronted as we move forward in art.