A week ago, conceptual artist Trey Duvall met with Fort Lewis College students in the Art Gallery to introduce his site-specific installation: “Hat On A Hat.”
Standing in the middle of what seemed to be a completely empty space, Duvall discussed his work and invited questions. Slowly, a braided yellow rope descended from the rafters. It quietly landed on a square, white platform, a kind of stage in the center of the gallery.
Duvall kept talking. Viewers, somewhat confused, alternately looked at him and at the rope.
Overhead, Duvall had created a contraption to hold a large industrial spool from which the rope dropped. When the rope touched the floor, it formed a random circle, then another, and another.
“I set the parameters for an experiment and what happens next isn’t mine,” he said.
Like many conceptual artists, Duvall begins with an idea, creates a structure to express and support it and allows chance and variability to operate freely. Conceptual art sounds simple, but it is one of the most demanding practices in contemporary art – for creator and viewer.
The process dates back to Marcel Duchamp, the Dadaist who plucked found objects out of their settings and proclaimed them “art.” It also stems from later conceptualists like Eva Hesse and Bruce Nauman, who operated in far darker idioms than Duvall.
Asked about his intentions, Duvall simply said: “Concepts first. Form follows.”
Consequently, his installation exists at the intersection of art, science and philosophy. His title stems from the vaudevillian joke about wearing multiple hats.
“We humans want to create things that have a lasting impact,” he said, “in our quest for agency (meaning). But we do a slight-of-hand to ourselves in the face of entropy, disorganization and decay. Things don’t last.”
And, Duvall’s installation has a definite end date, when all the spools will have spent their contents, and presumably, a large mound of yellow rope will dominate the FLC Art Gallery. Absurd? Yes, and that’s intentional for a conceptual artist interested in ideas of futility and absurdity.
The four-part installation provides ample ground to think about those key ideas, beginning with the rope ballet, a wall of shelves holding tidy rows of industrial spools, video screens depicting stylized behaviors and an almost invisible wall installation of white-on-white place names. Together, these components invite viewers to stop, look, think and, above all, reflect on – absurdity and futility
Professor Susan Moss asked Duvall if he considered “beauty” in the development of his project. Duvall said “No,” beauty was not an intentional aesthetic, and he seemed surprised at the question.
When Duvall’s talk ended, Moss’ question stimulated discussion in the audience. For me, Duvall’s spare, symmetrical design and clean white-and-yellow palette have an understated purity and abstract beauty. Intentional or not.
When the exhibit ends Feb. 20, 36,000 feet of yellow rope will have fallen to the gallery floor. Every day, the rope mound visually symbolizes the passage of time and Duvall’s other themes.
For the practically minded, how does that actually happen? Each day, professor Jay Dougan will take a new spool of rope, ascend a ladder, install it in the rafters and set the spool in motion for the rope’s daily descent.
Dougan was Duvall’s 3D professor in 2009 when Duvall graduated from FLC with a double major in art and education. Duvall credits Dougan and professors Amy Wendland and Chad Colby for an excellent grounding in artistic practice and the best advice he ever got: Do the work and let your creative practice guide you.
After FLC, Duvall taught art at Durango High School, then he attended graduate school at the University of Houston where he completed an MFA. Currently, he is artist-in-residence at Denver’s RedLine Contemporary Art Center and director/curator at SITE Gallery Houston. His work has been exhibited in Chicago, Denver, Houston, Minneapolis, New York City and Nantes, France.
Judith Reynolds is an arts journalist and member of the American Theatre Critics Association.