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Beyond Literacy, The innovative photography of Noelle Tan
Civilian Art Projects, curated by Jayme McLellan — Opening September 7, 2007
406 7th Street NW • Washington, DC – Phone: 202-607-3804

Review by: Grace Cavalieri

Throughout Europe, altar art displayed in the cathedrals can only be fully seen by depositing a coin. After depositing a coin, it takes a moment before the painting is illuminated; and, because it is timed, luminescent energy suddenly turns off.

Fire But there is one moment between the time when reality is rendered in the dark, and in the light where expectation flares. A psychological phenomenon occurs. This is when we realize we do not insist on the object of art to be our only reality. The art stays, yes; but -- as the one and single human perception --it may be refused. There is more than seeing and non-seeing. There is hesitation in the moment between. This is the balance that Noelle Tan captures in her art. There is no single reality for Noelle Tan, but only the pulse between realities. It is a feat joining form and eternity. 

Every artist has a vocabulary and Tan's is of super literacy, beyond and between the moment where life meets death. A map of the artist's sensibilities can be seen in her art. In the places of knowledge she depicts, we find an artist who extracts, rather than intrudes upon life. But what is this life? Only time in motion. All has been somewhere. All is going somewhere; and, on the wing, when we are lucky, may be apprehended. Tan knows human form begins on a horizontal plane between birth and final passage. She also knows there is a vertical plane of light and shadow in which every artist lives to record the passing through light, so that both states - life and death - are made forever permanent and can be seen at once. What is her product but a map of consciousness?

"The tear is an intellectual thing" said poet Stanley Kunitz. Tan's "maps" point to a time, and reckons with a time that will never be used again. There is knowledge of grief but not mourning, for, remember that it is ultimately light the artist seeks.

Fire in the Desert Narratives contain story. Narratives can be the form that holds our art, both with writing and the visual arts. Without narrative, Noelle Tan shows what preexists and what is always leaving. This is without reliance on ordinary nomenclature, and is replaced with a deep sense of trust.

The lack of story is the significance here because we have no race, no gender, no age ---just immediacy. The central moment. A recognition. These are photographic strokes that make meaning despite the terrain of daily life. In each work there is a moment of stillness, just as in every poem there is a place where meaning turns a corner...where something that was meant, now means something different. It is a tiny turn but essential, for this is the place the audience, the reader, the viewer, enters the intuitive state and completes the experience. On a physical map, there are bridges over land.  The invisible bridges Tan creates are spiritual paths - landscapes of white and black- zen combinations.

We expect every map to have a beginning and an end. Noelle removes the edges so that instead of land, we would see shadow, instead of land we see light. There is no one who can behold these works of illumination without realizing that illusion and disillusion are never far from each other...that expectation and disappointment hold hands, that the present time is a meditation,  and the future its hand maiden, and the past coexists in that moment outside of time in eternity.

The impulse to create is done effortlessly. The result must surprise even the artist who embarks on the map for one reason only - that of discovery. We look at this work and realize that it is without manipulation or persuasion. A map of literacy will last for years; a visionary map will remain forever.

Founded in 2006, Civilian Art Projects is Washington, DC's newest gallery gnawing at the edges of contemporary aesthetic discourse. Through a challenging exhibition series supporting promising, up-and-coming artists working in a broad range of media, and through exciting events of cultural and social significance held throughout the season, Civilian will generate new energy, ideas and momentum thereby contributing to culture and community. For more information on the artists or the gallery please contact Civilian Art Projects at 202-607-3804. The current exhibition is sponsored by the Creative Capital Foundation.

Grace Cavalieri is a poet, playwright, and essayist. She produces/hosts "The Poet and the Poem from the Library of Congress" for public radio.

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