As part of the Glasgow International Festival of Visual Art, approaches to translate the subjective experience into the artistic process were explored in In the Shadow of the Hand and Back to the Things Themselves. Questions were raised on the nuances and distinctions between notions of the subjective, personal and self-indulgent. These borders disintegrate in the exhibition Paul Thek – ‘If you don’t like this book you don’t like me.’, on show at The Modern Institute till 2 June 2012, where fragments of the life of an artist, as narrated through pages of notebooks, become a part of the works on display.
In the past two decades, there has been an explosion of exhibitions and publications on Paul Thek, perhaps as part of an effort to re-insert him into the history of art. Though well-received in Europe during the 1970s, he died in relative obscurity in 1988 after his return to the United States. Thek’s name is often cited in relation to the Technological Reliquaries or “meat pieces”, a series of works made in the 1960s where body parts appearing as chunks of flesh were presented in geometric vitrines, a revelry of one’s fleshly mortality within the confines of the composed exterior of minimalism. While these sculptures were solid and dense, he also made works from ephemeral materials with collaborators, creating immersive environments that lasted for the duration of the exhibition. While little documentation remains of these installations, about 80 of Thek’s notebooks were retrieved and carefully preserved after his passing.
The Technological Reliquaries are materially absent in the show. Knowledge of it is acquired through the supplementary reading materials provided. The artist’s notebooks, usually occupying this secondary position for signposts to an artist’s intentions, instead forms the core of the show, presented in the main artery of the gallery space alongside several of his paintings, and photographs by Peter Hujar in the gallery’s upper level.
His notebooks reveal repeated scribbles of self-motivational phrases to meticulous lists and copying of religious texts. Illustrations, drawings and watercolor works suggest a mind filled with both doubt and idealism, on the possibility of fulfillment within one’s earthly existence and a continual search for a higher spiritual being. Enclosed in vitrines, most of the notebooks are spread open to specific pages. Several remain shut. While the open pages disclose paradoxes, exuberance and anxieties that intimate the intentions behind the hybrid approach to the form and style of his works, it is the pages withheld from view that provokes one to consider the subjective voice of the hand behind how one is to like the book, and Paul Thek.