South Portland artist Jeff Woodbury was walking on a beach with his eyes open to the sand-polished stones clacking below his feet. He picked up a pair of them and knocked them together. To his surprise, the clear sound was musically tonal. So, Woodbury set to work—gathering, comparing, contrasting, sorting. From these stones and an assortment of sticks he created a group of sound sculptures.
As a musician, when I first saw them in his studio set in artfully elegant stick armatures like stone xylophones, I assumed they were standard-scaled instruments. But there was more to them. Instead of following the common seven-tone scale (where eight is the octave, think piano), Woodbury had made sets of varied numbers and tonal groups that each had a completely different feel—a poetic feel.
Having studied composition, modal music (the historical stuff of scales—think Miles Davis, but also the ancient Greeks) and some traditional international music systems, my mind immediately tried to categorize Woodbury’s sets of tone stones. After a few minutes of playing with them, however, their simple presence became clear. They were poetically grouped sets of tones with a quirk or two of personality. They were interesting and unexpectedly organic.
Paleoxylophone, 2005-present, dimensions variable, beach stones
In grouping the tone stones, Woodbury wasn’t thinking like a musician, but as an artist. His process began with something like gathering a palette—a large group of tonal stones—and then organizing them in what could be called gestures, layers or … steps. In their final presentation, each group was like a sculptural drawing in both object and tones. Ironically, my studied expectations held up what was so easily apparent to our mutual friends: tone poetry rather than some classical code. Still, after a bit, even I caught up.
Woodbury’s art is notoriously difficult to pin down because he works in so many different mediums and he generally thrives on the limitations and benefits of the specific context. In short, he makes the most of the materials at hand and is willing to use most anything as an art medium. Woodbury is a trained artist and a graphics professional by trade; he can paint, draw, photograph and sculpt, and is a serious and technically advanced printmaker. His art has taken the form of dissected maps, burnt slides, bug-munched wood, drawings made by attaching pens to HEXBUGS, burnt silhouettes, snakeskin scans and the list goes on and on. The irony is that Woodbury’s art, work by work, is incredibly approachable to the general public, and yet it intimidates curators and critics since we so often get caught up in notions like “style” in the sense of the recognizable look of things. This is why Woodbury is reticent about applying to group shows without a stated theme. “Since,” he explains, “that makes it akin to shooting darts blindfolded.”
Woodbury’s “style,” however, is not predicated on this or that medium or some predictably brandable look. Rather it generally follows the surprisingly common artistic logic of “emergence.” An emergent system is one in which individual components, when placed in proximity, interact in a way that results in something greater than the individual parts.
One stone with a tone isn’t much. But once they create a system, a new dynamic reality occurs that is far greater than just a few rocks that each sound nice when you hit them with a piece of wood. This became apparent to me with Woodbury’s tone sculptures as I tapped them one at a time with a stick.
An important artistic talent for emergent art is open-minded observation: Artists have to be able to recognize both the expected and the unexpected. Another example of this is a photograph by Woodbury of leaves he noticed on the forest floor that sported large and unexpectedly similar black dots (a blight of some sort). Woodbury arranged a group of these to create a symmetrical grid. This showcased the bizarrely similar spots while simultaneously invoking one of the core tropes of Modernism: the grid. The viewer clearly senses what Woodbury was up to in noticing and arranging the leaf dots (the dots make the grid, not the leaves—they are piled seemingly willy-nilly in service of the visual system). And yet, it would be easy to believe that either the biological system (the expressions of the blight) or the pictorial system (the Modernist grid) was the driving force. Woodbury adds to the multiple possibilities of the work with its title 5 by 5,which references a broadcast signal term meaning “I read you loud and clear.” Whatever path or paths you might take to grasp this image, it is a brilliant as well as beautiful work of art.
5 x 5, 2013, 12 x 12 inches, archival digital print
Woodbury has also made and displayed sculptures, drawings and prints relating to those intricately carved trees covered with paths created by beetles. Such emergent systems of bug trails are called “beetle galleries.” I doubt Woodbury was seeking to serve such a basic artworld witticism, but I personally find it hilariously entertaining.
The Garden is Burning, 2021, 50 x 38.5 inches, relief monoprint
A recent series of Woodbury’s prints uses hand stamps as the print matrix to create chain link fences. How loosely aligned or how large the field of the fence—since these prints are, as Woodbury says, “modular and scalable”—makes a huge difference in the viewer’s experience. This effect is more something we feel with our bodies than a concept to be explained or linguistically decoded. In terms of emergence, it was about halfway through printing The Garden is Burning that the title came to Woodbury as “The garden is burning and I can’t get in and I can’t get out.” He was struck by growing notions of “pixels and the emergent visual phenomenon of the grid (which is negative space) moving to the foreground and actually floating above the colored blocks, which came as a surprise.”
Woodbury also made drawings and paintings in recent years based on the size of his own arm span. He stands in one place so, in the end, each image is a map of his reach. Again, the experience of the work is rich with ideas any viewer will bring to the table—the symmetry of the strokes and the limited curves make references to the human body and the brain and so we cannot help but see in such works the complexity of thought itself. This logic is also true of many of Woodbury’s symmetrical pictures; his sketchbooks are filled with drawings that find bilateral symmetry by using the margin of the book. The scale of the hand gestures produces curves which, when repeated and echoed, feature an often-brainlike organic feel. “The largest drawings sometimes look like brains,” he explains, “and there is almost always a line down the center devoid of marks, where the tools cannot quite connect. I refer to this as the corpus callosum, the nerve fibers connecting the two hemispheres that permit communication between the left and right sides of the brain.”
Many of Woodbury’s images engage with symmetrical structures. He has made many simultaneously echoed images with a pen in each hand. Sometimes, his works incorporate the elements of a 3D object—which then calls for symmetry by component. This quality of his work seems to well from a series of drawings he began in the late 1990s of airshaft machine parts in the hallway of his Brooklyn apartment. One night he noticed the machine image he was drawing reflected in the dark window “and it seemed to come alive.” Woodbury leapt on this emergent experience—in which he experienced two components interacting dynamically. His ensuing series, “Drawings of the Machinespine Corporation,” was the result, although at the time he would scan the drawings and create the reflected symmetry electronically instead of through physical means, and then project the images and draw them by hand at large scale. When enlarged, bilaterally symmetrical images are often perceived as human-like. When each drawing in the series was completed, Woodbury would assign it “a gender and a position within the corporation.”
Machinespine: CEO, 2004, 40 x 54 inches, ink on paper
This led to Machinespine Mirror (n-dimensional drawing), in which he dissected a machinespine drawing, rebuilt half of it as independent cut-out layers and mounted them on a mirror. The resultant image is both a sculpture and a drawing—one which exists in both real and reflected space.
Some of Woodbury’s work follows more process-oriented systems logic. He created multiple series at once by dissecting paper maps so that they ultimately became gossamer webs of roads held together by the framing margins. He then took the underlying sheets of Mylar on which he cut the maps with an X-ACTO knife and made stunningly subtle, complex and well-executed prints. The prints clearly revealed recognizable map and road features, but as Woodbury moved them around on the Mylar and cut both sides of the roads, logic was apparent—but it was unrecognizable logic since it doesn’t match any of our real-world expectations. (Who, after all, dissects maps with a razor?)
Timeline (Chronology of Waiting), 200106-20011101, 5.5 x 8.5 inches, ink on paper
While living in New York, Woodbury made a series—the “Timeline” drawings—by moving his pencil vertically down the page and stopping when the subway stopped. He would then begin again so that each drawing comprised a series of dozens of parallel pencil verticals with stops throughout. What is notably different here is that the logic of the making—the logic of emergence—is not apparent unless explained. In full disclosure: I own one of these drawings, but for years I had no idea about the logic behind it. It doesn’t need the conceptual story to work as a drawing, but I admit it added something: Woodbury’s logic of mark-making and pictorial content is often “motivated” (yup, that’s the theory term but it means just what it says) by the context of making the work. Of course, his drawings on the subway would find their contextual means from the subway experience. Of course.
“The ‘Timeline’ drawings (or ‘Topography of Waiting’) are based on fuzzy logic,” says Woodbury. “I established two rules: draw a straight line, and repeat. ‘Repeat’ is the fuzzy rule: Do we draw another straight line or repeat the line we just drew? In repeating the previous line, imperfections begin to creep in, and at a certain point the first rule comes into play and the action snaps back to ‘draw a straight line.’”
Emergence is often used, for example, to make curves out of straight lines: Imagine a fanned deck of cards in your hand… “pick a card, any card.” Woodbury’s gateway, on the other hand, was almost the opposite: A complex series of curves suddenly finds symmetry and comes alive. That is life—biological life. When we see symmetry in nature, we generally assume it’s organic. And, yeah, a living thing is much more than the sum of its chemical ingredients.
It should be no surprise that Woodbury is into puzzles, games and models and their system-driven logic. Games such as backgammon are perfect examples of systems that are almost unpredictably complex because of emergence: There are, after all, about 300 trillion possible outcomes for a completed backgammon game.
Whereas Woodbury’s artworks incorporate context and concepts, they appear more as challenges or adventures than conceptual gestures. The Conceptual Art movement that peaked in the 1970s followed the notion that the idea was the art and the execution was merely perfunctory—a proof of concept rather than the thing itself. Emergent art finds meaning, richness and complexity in the process. Consider Woodbury’s recent series of prints that feature toy guns as though they were models still contained in the rectangular matrix so familiar to anyone who has assembled models. To begin, it’s hard not to revel in Woodbury’s skills as a printmaker—the edges and modulation of colors are masterfully perfect. Unpacking the content as a viewer, on the other hand, is a different kind of experience. A toy gun? Is it a political statement? If so, what is it saying? Or is this thing diving into the logic of 3D printing? Is it about the biological symmetry of a tool made to be held? And then we find ourselves necessarily following the paths of the parts as they are logically abstracted from the real and then are later reassembled by the owner/purchaser of the model.
Guns Like Water, (detail) 2015, 25 x 37 inches, screen monoprint
In the end, Woodbury’s toy gun print refuses to play the part of propaganda. There is no doubt that viewers will bring varied thoughts about guns and toy guns to their own personal experience of the work, but in this case Woodbury’s emergent systems content feels far closer to the likelihood of exactly matching backgammon games than any binary political divide. His ideas are far more subtle as they are pointing us to human culture, thought processes, the role of the brain and body, systems, emergence and game theory, as well as plain old play and fun.
Cacanphony, 2020 sound performance (video)
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Art historian and critic Daniel Kany is senior writer at the King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture (Ithra) in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia.
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