sand : a moment of time….This definition stands out from the swirling streams of words and definitions that surround a man who appears to be balancing an hourglass on his head. The hourglass sifts sands of time from its upper chamber into the lower that dissolves into the man’s forehead. Titled SAND-MAN, this print by Bonnie Gordon appears on the cover of her book published by Rochester’s Visual Studies Workshop Press in 1982 with the long title: The Anatomy of THE IMAGE MAPS According to Merriam-Webster’s Third New International Dictionary of the English Language Unabridged. In the introduction, the artist says, “The image-maps in this book record the progress of a decade-long exploration of the content of a dictionary and a stretchable halftone photograph. The book and the picture served one another as tools for discovering their mutual underlying subject matter.”
This exhibition celebrates Bonnie Gordon who pioneered techniques in the early 1970s that presage digital manipulation of photographic and print media. She altered imagery and text—literally stretching it—to create works that range from single two-dimensional cyanotype prints to enormous, gallery-filled, multi-media sculptural installations. Undulating textual threads take seemingly serendipitous journeys across the surface of her works, tracing and changing meaning while fortuitously drawing direct connections between words that also resonate in the transformed image of a protean man. The results can be read as visual manifestations of contemporary theory that address how the unconscious functions. Her work has consistently challenged categorization. The building blocks of Gordon’s subjects have been based on entries from Merriam-Webster's Third New International Dictionary of the English Language Unabridged connected with distorted images of a ubiquitous “protean” man wearing a suit and tie.
Gordon’s art can be appreciated through the lens of French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, who is known for asserting: “The unconscious is structured like a language.” Defining the unconscious as the “discourse of the Other,” Lacan wrote about this process in 1977 in Ecrits, stating:
Psychoanalytic experience has rediscovered in man the imperative of the Word as the law that has shaped him in its image. It exploits the poetic function of language to give his desire its symbolic mediation. May this experience finally enable you to understand that the whole reality of its effects lies in the gift of speech; for it is through this gift that all reality has come to man and through its ongoing action that he sustains reality. (Lacan, Ecrits, 322.)
In 1980, when Gordon prepared to submit a grant to publish her Proteus series, she sent a questionnaire to artists, scholars, and friends for responses to her work. In it, she quotes linguist Ferdinand de Saussure, whose work informed Lacan’s. She wrote:
I regard my chosen dictionary as a reasonably trustworthy microcosm of the English language. To quote Ferdinand de Saussure, “The very possibility of putting the things that relate to language into graphic form allows dictionaries and grammars to represent it accurately.” (Ferdinand de Saussure, Course in General Linguistics, Philosophical Library, 1959) She continues: “I treat excerpts from my dictionary as bits of language, not as pieces of writing or poetry. Is it okay to quote Saussure that my dictionary is language?”
Quoting from Math, published by Time/Life Books in 1963 to make concepts accessible, Gordon also explains “The Topology of a Face” by stating: “In an unusual transformation, a man’s face is distorted [Gordon deleted "in a fun-house mirror."] Topographically the face and its distortion are the same: each point on one corresponds to a single point on the other.” Using her own Protean man’s face as an example, she shows how “topological equivalence” equals “one-to-one transformation.” She also illustrates how the process of “real stretching” that she utilized differs from the “illusion of stretching” such as “anamorphosis, caricature or computer morphing.” Her signature process has been to experiment with “infinitely elastic plastic.” Importantly Gordon states: “Topological equivalence was, in fact, my real reason for deciding to use one (and only one) basic image for my almost 30-year project and it still is.” More than twenty years later, she maintains that math and topology were greater influences than other philosophical theories as her work developed.
Gordon, like other women artists over the course of centuries, has not been well recognized for her achievements in the patriarchal art world. Her highly complex images, objects, and installations are long overdue for the attention they deserve. Fortunately, several individuals have collaborated to laud her creativity. In 2021, artists Roberley Bell, James Morris, and Colleen Buzzard co-curated The Protoplast of Proteus / Bonnie Gordon, presented in Rochester, New York. They invited Nancy Weekly to participate in selecting works since she has curated an expanded version of their exhibition for the Burchfield Penney Art Center. They also engaged Courtney Grim, who videotaped interviews of the artist for presentation with her art.
Bonnie Gordon: Mapping Image and Word, Stumbling into Streams of Consciousness recognizes Gordon’s development of ideas and methods by including intricately drawn notes and studies, early prints, cyanotypes, globes, and scroll sculptures. One gallery space is devoted to a fragment of the astounding installation, Bonnie Gordon: Proofs of Concept/Presenting Evidence exhibited at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in 2002. To fully appreciate her work, Weekly states, the exhibition also incorporates proto-hypertext elements that Gordon calls “life stories, visual diaries” from the mind-blowing installations that fill multiple rooms of her studio and home.
We are indebted to Bonnie Gordon for sharing her time and vision for a new, appreciative audience. We are grateful for the generous support of Cliff and Arlene Gordon and the Margaret L. Wendt Foundation. We also want to thank Claudia Kadryna and other friends, family members, and lenders whose efforts helped bring this exhibition to fruition.