Rebis Rebus – Exhibition Review

Published as Collin Pressler, June 2014.

The Rebis: in alchemy, this union of Mercury and Venus, the reconciliation of spirit and matter, the “divine hermaphrodite,” is the consequence of the alchemical Great Work (or, the melding of opposites). The Rebus: from the latin “non verbus, sed rebus” (“not by words, but by things,”) is “a riddle or puzzle made up of letters, pictures, or symbols whose names sound like the parts or syllables of a word or phrase,” specifically a namesake represented as pictures. Rebis Rebus, Peregrine Program’s current exhibition of artists Rebecca Walz and Ryan Pfeiffer’s collaborative drawings, is packed with symbolic and allegorical references to the history of magical thought, depth psychology and ritual. The works read as individually exquisite drawings and collectively as the illustrated compendium to the duo’s serious investigations of alchemy, hermeneutics and ancient art. Emergent across the history of ritual and spirituality is the union of opposites, the merging of two, embodied in the artists’ collaborative practice.

In the drawings, the repetition of archers and horned-gods recalls the ancient origins of representation in the dark crannies of Trois Frères, subterranean home of the mysterious “Sorcerer.” We are also reminded of the myth of Actaeon, the great hunter punished by the goddess Artemis for spying her bathing in a secret mountain grotto. Made into a stag and stripped of speech by the goddesses’ wrath, Actaeon is eaten by his own hounds. These symbols possess a certain gravity, reminiscent of Jungian archetypical forms, “essential” leitmotifs in the human drama. Walz and Pfeiffer work with a confident hand: while the drawings themselves appear influenced by the miniatures of medieval illuminated manuscripts, a certain flair dominates the line quality of these otherwise sparse, almost graphic compositions. The red conte crayon in Walz and Pfeiffer’s work is reminiscent of the ancient use of sanguine ochre, and so the associations with the work’s primordial precedents are doubled.

Another repeating image in Walz and Pfeiffer’s drawings is the eerie, reposed (possibly disposed of) figure from Marcel Duchamp’s Étant donnés, the artist’s seminal masterwork (fabricated after three decades allegedly retired from art to study chess.) Featuring the early conceptualist’s most problematic figure has interesting effects. The vulnerable female position staged in the Étant’s vile peep-hole reemerges as powerful (even exacting) in the myth of Acteaeon and Artemis. Here, a victimized body is redeemed by proximity. These deeply engrained images from the history of art and culture coalesce and jump outside themselves. It is exciting that despite these associations, and the possibility of a narrative through-line, indeed despite the recognizability of Walz and Pfieffer’s symbolic language, the work remains enigmatic and visceral; close to the guts and haunting.