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Micah Lexier
Micah Lexier
ABOVE: Micah Lexier in Venice, 2001. Photograph by Cliff Eyland.

Micah Lexier’s Notation

George Ifrah's book "The Universal History of Numbers" provides exhaustive documentation about the origins of our notation system:
It should be made clear straight away that the modern figures 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,0 acquired their present form in the fifteenth century in the West, modeled on specific prototypes and adopted permanently when the printing press was 'invented' in Europe. Today they are used all over the world, thus constituting a kind of universal language... - [Ifrah, 368]

Two works make up the exhibition Micah Lexier:1. One is "All Numbers Are Equal (Perpetua)," (2000) a set of the numerals 1-9 made of waterjet-cut aluminum with a baked-enamel paint finish. The entire work when assembled on a wall measures 4 feet high x 26 feet long x 1 inch thick. "Using a computer program [says Lexier] I evaluated the surface area of each of the numbers and then re-sized each number accordingly so that, even though they are each a different size, they are all equal in surface area."

Lexier's play with numbers in "Perpetua" and some other works, for example his neon "Two Ways to Make 2" and "Four Ways to Make 1" (2001) reminds me of 'pataphysics, the "science of imaginary solutions" invented by the early twentieth-century poet Alfred Jarry [Shattuck]. Lexier proposes imaginary solutions to problems about the graphic forms of numbers or "notation."

Lexier performs a "calculation" with graphic notation in the work "All Numbers Are Equal (Perpetua)," (which is, by the way, a recent addition to the collection of the National Gallery of Canada). By making his figures exactly match each other in surface area he calls into question a numeral's sense as a number. I am reminded of the story of the English cartographer who figured out the area of oddly-shaped English counties by cutting up a map and weighing the respective pieces of paper. Lexier 's number works seem strangely un-mathematical. As everyone knows, bigger notation does not mean bigger numbers, elegant numerals do not make for more elegant calculations, and same-size numerals do not mean same-size numbers!

I use the term "notation" deliberately. The principles and operations of mathematics do not depend on mathematical notation, even if certain symbols are easier to remember, to teach and to perform operations upon than others. When graphic designers twist numbers and letters out of shape by means of superimposition, distortion and other manipulations, we remember, the numerical sense of the numbers in the new type forms must never be lost in the design, even if they become almost unrecognizable. The distinction between number and notation is the distinction between mathematical sense and graphic sense.

A Roman numeral's mathematical sense, like Lexier's same-size numerals, has nothing to do with the difficulty that Romans would have had with long division, and it would take a great effort to rid ourselves of our own understanding of numbers in order to calculate the way the Romans would have. The notion that one's language proscribes thought may be unpopular these days, but the idea that a notation system's attendant mathematical theory proscribes the possibilities of mathematics is without doubt true (i.e. contemporary mathematicians could impose contemporary mathematical concepts on any number of notational systems, but it would be harder for, say, a Mesopotamian number cruncher to transpose his concepts onto contemporary notation without knowing contemporary mathematics).

The following are examples of "calculations" that follow the logic of Lexier's graphical play: a "3" may be "added" to a "backwards" 3, that is, "graphically" superimposed on its mirror image, to make an an "8". This does not mean that in a mathematical sense 3+3=8 of course, but that strictly speaking, a 3 superimposed on its mirror image is an "addition" that resembles the figure 8. If such the results become so strange as to lose all mathematical sense, then we have then moved into an area that operates under Lexier's implied "'Patamathematical" rules of graphic calculation.

Graphic design, concrete poetry and the use of letters and numbers in twentieth-century visual art come to mind, especially if there is an inquiry into the operations of mathematics and graphic typology. Very often it is the forms of numbers and a very general idea of numbers and calculation which informs 'patamathematical play. (One thinks especially of Jasper Johns, who superimposed the numerals 0-9 in several works several decades ago.)

Because the Arabic system of numbers (actually invented in India) has become universal, the misreadings and mistakes that we repeat again and again with Arabic numerals universally recur. For example," sevens" are often misread as "ones." The crossed seven is a European effort to dispell confusion. The one-seven confusion can also happen with backslashes and vertical lines (see, for example Lexier's witty "Four Ways to Make a 1" or his design for this exhibition's mailer which also plays with the numeral "1").

"38 Consecutive Prints"

The other work in this exhibition is Lexier's 1999 work "38 Consecutive Prints." While "All Numbers Are Equal (Perpetua)" relates to several recent Lexier works that play on the mysteries of the morphology of numbers such as "Two Ways to Make 2" (2000) "Two Ways to Make 8" (2000) "A Piece of Paper Cut in Pieces" (2001) and "Four Ways to Make 1" (2001), "38 Consecutive Prints" is related to Lexier works about personal mortality such as "A performance for one dancer and 39 one-pound weights" (2000) "38 Cubic Inches (red/gray/white)" (1999), "My age (in years) in circulating Australian coins (in cents)" (2001), "39 Wood Balls" (2000), and "38 Wood Units" (1999), all made with the artist's age at the time of making in mind.

Each framed etching in "38 Consecutive Prints" is 11"x 13". "This work [says Lexier] consists of 38 prints that were consecutively pulled from an etching plate which consisted of the numbers 1 to 38 evenly distributed over the top half of the plate. On the first print, ink was only applied to the number "1", so that on the resulting print the number "1" is black and all the other numbers are white (embossed). For print number two, ink was only applied to number "2"; in the resulting print number "1" prints gray as there was still residual ink from the first print, number "2" prints black and all the other numbers are white. This is repeated for the remaining prints so that in each print the number of the print is always black the numbers preceding it are various shades of gray and the remaining numbers are always white and embossed. All 38 prints are shown together as the work. I was 38 years of age at the time of making the work."

Lexier's "All Numbers Are Equal (Perpetua)" employs "'Patamathematical' play, but his "38 Consecutive Prints" is about counting years. Both "All Numbers Are Equal (Perpetua)" (2000) and "38 Consecutive Prints" (1999) were made at the cusp of the Millennium, and both deal with artistic problems of enumeration, but "38 Consecutive Prints" also refers to the artist's personal mortality. As a numeral comes into focus in black ink, the number preceding it fades gradually while the number yet to be inked exist as barely-visible white embossed forms.

Lexier works in a tradition of conceptual art, an art often associated with procedural exactitude and scientistic distance. Lexier and other artists who use conceptual art strategies turn what was once a cool and dispassionate way of making art into meditations on the passing of years, into vanitas emblems. Early conceptualists like Sol LeWitt and Lawrence Weiner, for example, did not even allow any personal mark making, much less commentary on personal mortality, to enter their work. Other Canadian artists who have used conceptual art strategies to comment on mortality include Gerald Ferguson, Eric Cameron and Kelly Mark, whose work may be connected with Lexier's 'age' works in terms of the explicit equation of hours of labour with the (remaining) hours of one's life.


- Cliff Eyland eylandc@hotmail.com


Bibliography

Eyland, Cliff et al. Gallery One One One Web Site. Online. Available: http://www.umanitoba.ca/schools/art/content/galleryoneoneone/111.html.
Ifrah, George. The Universal History of Numbers. Toronto: John Wiley & Sons, Inc. 2000.
LeWitt, Sol. "Sentences on Conceptual Art" in Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art. eds. Kristine Stiles and Peter Selz. Berkeley: University of California Press. 1996 [826-827]
Newman, Michael and Bird, Jon. Rewriting Conceptual Art London: Reaktion Books. 1999
Patten, James. Gerald Ferguson: Recent Paintings. Winnipeg: Winnipeg Art Gallery. 2002
Shattuck, Roger. The Banquet Years: The Origins of the Avant-Garde in France 1885 to World War 1. Toronto: Random House.1968 [see page 242 for a definition of 'Pataphysics]


Gallery One One One, School of Art, Main Floor, FitzGerald Building, University of Manitoba Fort Garry campus, Winnipeg, MB, CANADA R3T 2N2 TEL:204 474-9322 FAX:474-7605

For information please contact Robert Epp eppr@ms.umanitoba.ca