Mark Havens, So This is Goodbye

Untitled (Bed)

The Slingluff Gallery

By Jessica Anne Clark

In Mark Havens’ world the inanimate object is king. So This is Goodbye, Havens’ exhibition of photographs on wood depicts a variety of human spaces mostly empty of direct human involvement.  I found Untitled (Rodeo)’s image of an announcer’s booth overlooking a sports arena utterly magnetic.  A long table stretches across the horizontal axis of the composition; it is occupied by a lone television turned at an angle and a couple of lightly creased sheets of paper.  In the blurred distance a crowd fills the stacked stadium seating while the chairs at the base of the composition are empty, pulled out from the announcer’s table at various angles.  (Rodeo) softly crackles with vitality.  It is not so much the human presence that brings (Rodeo) to life but a synthetic pulse beyond these objects’ human counterparts.  In Untitled (Washer) a washer and dryer hum their independence; a lamp sheds light for the sheer pleasure of its power.  In Untitled (Camp) empty tables and stacked chairs provide a similarly lively effect.

Not all Havens’ compositions arrest at the same rate.  At first glance, Untitled (Bed) seemed a bit more contrived, less innocent in its energy.  An odd teddy bear rests at the head of a neatly made bed, centered between two pillows.  A digital clock murkily announces the time.  Though I passed over this piece quickly, as I looked back I was struck by that stomach-punch so skillfully thrown by art-done-right.  It’s difficult to put my finger on the how and why of the piece: is it the forlorn and difficult to discern form of the bear, the extreme tidiness of the bed?  Perhaps these objects hold an expectation, a desire for occupants long gone.  That I do not know the cause, only the strength of its affect speaks volumes of Havens’ practice.  Though meticulously positioned, these objects defy the rigid narrative structures often evoked by specificity, allowing for a richer and more active viewer experience.

The gradual revelation of all (Bed)’s riches could easily be chalked up to Havens’ choice of materials.  The effect of pigment on wood creates an image that changes depending on one’s angle of approach.  Some pieces call for a bit of a squint, due in part to the wood’s absorptive qualities.  The texture and pigmentation of the wood-grain demand a decelerated experience of Havens’ work.  Our photo-saturated world has trained us to blow through images, but the wood does not allow for such speedy undertakings.

Havens is at his best when working with interior spaces, though a couple of his exteriors conjure the same level of mystery.  Untitled (Bus) centers upon the left side of a school bus packed to its Yellowbird gills with stuff.  Cardboard boxes and a variety of odds and ends press upon the oblong windowpanes.  Two miniature crutches poke up out of the sea of human detritus, a curious pair.  In many ways the common thread running through So This is Goodbye is the revelation of our world without us, and the secret life therein.   It is not so much didactic commentary as sheer poetry.

One does wonder who (or what) is saying goodbye to whom.  Is it a moment to which we bid adieu?  Have these objects and spaces been abandoned?  For the most part these spaces are not in disrepair.  It does not seem as though the human absence is permanent, the lights remain on in (Washer).  Havens’ images are devoid of human occupants except for one piece in which an individual figure is a major presence: in Untitled (Room) a woman is stretched out upon a double bed.  She lies stomach-down, her head nestled into a pillow and angled to the right.  A picture hangs above her; a door is slightly ajar on the left side of the composition.  What seems to be bedding is crumpled on the figure’s left.  I found this piece formally attractive (it interacts quite well with the wood-grain) but it did not hold me as the others did.  The image is slightly more intriguing when considered in conjunction with its unpopulated kin.  Is this woman at the core of Havens’ titular farewell?  Though the formal divergence of this image is noteworthy, I do not think (Room) commands the overall reading of this exhibit.  The absence of a loved one elicits a sort of sadness, a quality that is not pervasive in this body of work.  It is possible that Havens’ goodbye is more of a “see you later,” exchanged by animate and inanimate.  These chairs and light switches know we will not be gone long; in the meantime the objects revel in their brief solitude.

So This is Goodbye is generally cohesive, due in part to the consistency of materials and presentation.  Yet there were a handful of images that did not add to the potency of the whole.  I imagine the inclusion of some of these images might have more to do with fear of sparseness than anything else.  Untitled (Bird) presents the upturned leg of a presumably dead bird.  The image is cropped at the bird’s midsection (the head is not included) and tall grass fills the rest of the composition.  This image appears in another body of Havens’ work, (This Means You).  That (Bird) brings the natural world and mortality into the discussion may fit the theme of goodbye, but it seems in conflict with the show’s dominant imagery.

There was one piece that also felt out of step with the overall tenor of the show, but it strikes an interesting chord.  Untitled (Horses) depicts three charging horses spot-lit by a single lamp, the rest of the composition remaining unintelligibly dark.  This piece tests and pushes the boundaries of the materials, using the wood to its full advantage.  It is unclear as to whether the horses are actually there (perhaps they are a snippet of wallpaper or a hanging picture).  Lamplight hits the wall behind creating a rootedness to balance the otherworldly quality of the hovering horses.  This piece appears to open a portal to a new body of work waiting to be explored.

Ms. Clark is a freelance artist, writer, babysitter and coffee-drinker. She recently received an MFA in painting from the University of the Arts.