The Madison-based artist’s show “Unexplored Map” runs through August 27 at Overture’s Watrous Gallery.
Narrative is often relegated to the subtext of art exhibits, if present at all. There may be some sort of linking theme or context for the pieces in a given show, but the pieces are usually treated first and foremost as individual works.
But Madison-based artist Douglas Bosley‘s show Unexplored Map, on display through August 27 at the Watrous Gallery, bucks that convention. There’s a generous dose of sci-fi world-building running through this collection of large-scale mezzotints. The show celebrates the invention of so-called “X-Ray crystallography,” a process that was developed in some future or alternate history which uses X-rays to determine the atomic structure of a crystal. This process is one that is tied to and undertaken by Auxons—a fictional creation Bosley describes as “a self-replicating system of robots that reproduces exponentially until it reaches a critical threshold.” From there, with each print and accompanying written materials, Bosley develops the nebulous narrative of the Auxons and offers a view into the world they inhabit.
Mezzotint prints like “Point Singularity I” and “Point Singularity II” suck the viewer right in with their rich contrasts of light and dark and meticulous detail. Every component of each piece feels meticulously crafted especially in “The Quantum Indeterminacy Of Nature.” Each work depicts the Auxons, little spidery robots, interacting with and/or being affected by the various environments they traverse. As you spend more and more time with the exhibit, the little bots begin to feel more human as well. Still, what keeps the viewer thinking about the exhibit is the rich world and narrative Bosley has created through the prints, his writings, and the interplay between them.
What was most impressive for me, as a viewer, was Bosley’s ability to craft an immersive, all-encompassing narrative of a world by primarily using prints that also also must function on an individual aesthetic level as well. Bosley spoke with me recently about the challenges in creating an exhibit like Unexplored Map, and balancing the demands of story and printmaking.
Tone Madison: What came first in creating this show—the visuals or the narrative?
Douglas Bosley: It’s a little bit of a chicken-or-the-egg type of situation. Just because the more images I make, the more I know about the world. But I think generally speaking, the narrative behind everything is what comes first before almost everything else.
Tone Madison: You don’t really give the viewer a soft introduction to the world you’re creating. It’s detail-rich, but you’re not just saying, “Hello, viewer. Welcome to the world of the Auxons.” Instead it’s like the world is there, and then suddenly the viewer is too. Does that make any sense?
Douglas Bosley: Yeah, that makes perfect sense. And when I’m actually working on each image, I always build a much bigger picture than is actually cropped. And part of the reason I do that is probably for those long segments of exposition. Or it’s not even that, like you said, those little details that form everything else. But it just sort of helps imply that there is a world outside this little frame that serves as a window.
Tone Madison: That’s interesting, because then there’s kind of the literal exhibit, which is obviously your images. But then there’s also kind of the imagined exhibit, which is everything else that goes on in between these images.
Douglas Bosley: That’s kind of the hardest thing for me to do. [Each print] works like that—you can put it up on the wall, and each individually works fairly well, but putting together an exhibit and making it cohesive and getting that sort of backstory that informs everything else is difficult to do in a way that’s going to be understandable, I guess, for the viewer but also…It’s difficult to make people understand that there’s this whole other story that informs things that’s part of my work too.
Tone Madison: So then how do you do it? That seems difficult because you as the artist know, theoretically, what it is that we the viewers, are not getting. Or do you?
Douglas Bosley: And that’s tough. I had to have a very good editor look through the things that I was writing, even with the glossary, and sit down and be like “OK, what the hell even is this?’ You’re not giving enough information.”
Tone Madison: So, you’re cognizant of the fact that you’re walking a pretty thin line of creating intrigue versus gibberish.
Douglas Bosley: It really is walking that razor’s edge, or a cliff. On one side it’s not enough information, but on the other it’s too much. It’s almost like a game of Go, where with each piece, each one is a little piece on the board which keeps adding and adding, and after several years of working in this space, it kind of becomes huge and turns into its own monster. And again, where is a good entry point to all this? It’s a question I try to answer.
Tone Madison: You’ve crafted this immersive narrative, but at the same time, each piece also has to stand on its own from an aesthetic perspective. Is that something you have to balance?
Douglas Bosley: Not exactly. It’s kind of the first and the last thing with any artwork. It has to absolutely be at the top, it has to be excellent. It needs to be a masterwork of its craft, otherwise it’s not going to get any individual’s attention. If I was being very slapdash, or showing things that we’re messy, it’d be a very different statement, but I also think it would be a lot harder to grab people’s attention.
Tone Madison: I guess for me, when I think about art, whether it be visual, music, literature, a rigid structure, whether it be a narrative or political one, can often dilute the aesthetic quality of the piece, or vice verse. Take a book like 1984, for example. But for you it seems that those things aren’t mutually exclusive.
Douglas Bosley: Well, I think part of this comes up in the question of what it means to be avant-garde. But I think in the context of Orwell, for example, it’s really about Trotskyism and Leninism and that transition. I’m sure a historian would slap me in the face for saying some of those things. But at the same time, it is very much abstract, which is why it has managed to stay with us and stay relevant. If he was very explicit about what he was talking about, it might seem outdated.
So, I think there’s a light between abstraction and configuration that is part of what makes something relevant. Constant Nieuwenhuys, an artist I admire, wrote quite a bit about this in a letter to The Situationist. In a nutshell he said that if art is too abstract then over time it starts to lose its meaning and get thrown on coffee mugs, which is sort of the problem with something that’s too avant-garde, if it’s just about art or fancy medium,then it stops being relevant to other people and stops having substantive content. It doesn’t have that revolutionary function that it would otherwise have.
Tone Madison: That reminds me, I don’t know if you’ve ever read anything Kant has written on aesthetics.
Douglas Bosley: I have a little bit, a long time ago.
Tone Madison: He kind of talks about this as well by polarizing what it is for something to be good, and what it is for something to be beautiful. If something is beautiful it evokes a sort of subjective objectivity, but if something is good it has defined purpose and intent. Maybe that was the balance I was sort of trying to talk about earlier.
Douglas Bosley: Yeah, that’s interesting. And it makes me think [Stravinksy’s ballet] “The Firebird,” something that was very, very clinical in of its time but now has sort of been codified as being sort of beautiful in its own regard, even though it caused riots when it was first made available to the public.
And I kind of think if art can occupy both of those arenas, you know, if it’s both beautiful and good, in a Hegelian or Kantian sense, that’s really what I’m striving for. I think those are the works that I admire.