Encountering the art of Roni Horn is a bit like leafing through a book you read many years ago only to find you can make no sense of the faded notes scribbled in the margins. It feels both familiar and bewildering at the same time, and depending on your tolerance for these feelings, also deeply frustrating. Horn’s work divides the art world. Some critics, many curators and especially other artists are enthusiastic, but viewers allergic to the professional discourse of the art world may find it hermetic and indulgently solipsistic.
The Glenstone museum is presenting a survey of four decades of Horn’s work, covering her wide range of interests and media, from sculpture to photography to drawing, and including (as the earliest work on view) an ant farm she conceived in 1974. That work, titled simply “Ant Farm,” is what it says it is: a living colony of ants sandwiched between glass plates. The tunnels and pathways the insects make suggest connections with more recent, large-format collage-like works in which the artist slices up paper covered with pigment and rearranges the shredded pieces into what appear to be complex maps, annotated with words (some of them referring to things in the world, others mere nonsense). The ants make real pathways; the artist creates intricate, imaginative roads, paths and vectors that cluster into shapes that suggest islands, or continents, or simply biological but indeterminate forms.
Horn’s work is easier to describe than explicate, perhaps because she works across various media, and although you can identify connections between works, these connections don’t hold the key — if such a key exists — to understanding them. One room is devoted to images of birds, preserved through taxidermy, photographed from behind so that only the backs of the animals’ heads are visible. In another room, two apparently identical images of owls also are paired, but they stare out at rather than away from the viewer. Pairing is another theme, most prominently in a 2008-2009 series called “a.k.a.,” in which images of the artist taken at different stages in her life are juxtaposed.
Again, it is easier to pile up data points and references than it is to find meaningful connections. Horn has long been enchanted by Iceland, its topography, climate and isolation; she reads a great deal and uses words frequently in her work; she is interested in androgyny, not just in how she enacts her own sense of gender but as a concept; her father was a pawnbroker, which gives context to the 1982 “Goldfield,” a micro-thin sheet of annealed gold that lies on the floor like a metallic emergency blanket that hikers carry in case of mishap in cold weather. Also: Horn is interested in Emily Dickinson, which inspired her 2006-2008 “White Dickinson” series, a set of plastic and aluminum sticks that spell out phrases from the poet’s works.
Rather than try to encompass these disparate works and all the freewheeling meaning they spark, Glenstone includes in the beautifully designed two-volume catalogue a discursive, wildly allusive free-form essay by author and critic Gary Indiana, touching on themes of identity, solitude, consciousness, change and place. Indiana’s delirious prose veers from the personal to the philosophical, referencing Wallace Stevens, Glenn Gould, Charles Darwin, Jean Genet, Gilles Deleuze, Hart Crane, Paul Celan, Jean-Paul Sartre — an endless list. He does so in his trademark style, sober enough to keep his listeners rapt with attention, drunk enough to believe that they are actually making sense of what he is saying.
If you’ve spent time in academia, the art world, New York or other provincial outposts of the life of the mind in the past several decades, these are familiar names. The purpose to which they are put, like the names and allusions scattered throughout Horn’s work, don’t seem to matter much, at least not to the writer or the artist. They aren’t so much cited as invoked, like talismans. In that sense, Indiana’s dizzying list of writers, poets and philosophers is a bit like Horn’s Emily Dickinson sticks, which feel like space-age tokens, or money, things to be exchanged rather than studied or embraced. Both of them suggest pieces in a game, moved about, traded or collected, though the rules of the game are obscure.
To the extent that there is any kind of emotional valence to this work, it strikes me as tremendously sad. People who live their lives mainly through the intellect — through books and poetry, fine art, sophisticated music, serious theater, contemporary dance — are often in danger of refining their sensibilities to the point of self-imposed isolation. The rapidity with which one thing suggests another outstrips the ability to communicate these connections to other people. Ideas are reduced to shorthand, and the shorthand is stripped down to no more than a word or a name. These signifiers float free of the things they once referenced. Eventually, such folk may wonder as they speak with like-minded people whether anything at all is being said. Eventually, when they think to themselves, they may wonder whether they are thinking at all.
This is the only thing I can bring to bear on Horn’s work. To a limited degree, it makes a certain kind of sense (for me) of the cri de coeur in work such as the 2001-2002 “Cabinet of,” a set of 36 pictures of a clown’s face, in varying degrees of blurriness and photographic decomposition. It helps, perhaps, explain the vague discomfort inspired by the bird series, in which all of these magnificent avian heads are turned away, all vital signs of their ocular intelligence, the speed and finesse of their birdlike survey of the world, have been eliminated.
This is the last exhibition Glenstone is presenting before it opens a massive Tom Phifer-designed expansion building on its sprawling Potomac, Md., campus. It is a very different show from the coy and intriguing provocations of the Fischli and Weiss exhibition mounted in 2013-2014, or the subtle suggestions of the minimalist Fred Sandback show that closed in December. Perhaps you can make sense of it. I can’t. But then, that is probably the point. In his essay, Indiana cites Horn saying this: “The work has a way of developing in a manner that never allows the viewer to become too familiar with it or to make assumptions about it.” That’s an understatement.
Roni Horn On view through Jan. 28 at Glenstone, 12002 Glen Rd., Potomac, Md. Free, but reservations required. Call 301-983-5001 or visit glenstone.org.