“Terri Thornton: Binary System” at the Old Jail Art Center

Binary Systems, installation detail

If you drive west of Fort Worth on 183, eventually you’ll find Albany, Texas—home to the world’s largest per capita population of Princeton grads. In Albany, an old stone jailhouse has been transformed into a large art center housing a surprisingly impressive collection of diverse works from Asia and Europe. Upstairs, the two former jail cells are now temporary exhibition space for contemporary art. Terri Thornton is the 6th artist to present work in the cells.

Thornton’s installation of works, Binary Systems, is many things, but I keep thinking about the breath. The breath is one of the few bodily functions that operates both consciously and unconsciously. If we don’t think about it, we will continue to breath. If we do think about it, we can modulate the breath, hold it, extend it, breath faster, or deeper. Through modulating the breath we can affect other aspects of our being both physiological and psychological. Yogis do it famously. The breath has two essential phases: breathing in and breathing out. We do it all day long, filling and emptying our lungs. In the first cell there are a series of unframed drawings pinned to the walls.

The supports for the drawings are papers used to clear newspaper printing presses. Looking like marbled paper from Venice, they are really throwaway blotters. On top of these swirling, inky red-and-blue surfaces, Thornton has used a pencil to repeat the words: full, empty, fill, empty, etc. in lowercase Times font. Running down through the blotter ink swirls, there are long, clear lines where there is no ink. I imagine the breath moving along that long axis as if through a body. The red and blue ink then inevitably reference the venous and arterial blood flow, another internal physical system of filling and emptying. 


In the room with these blotter drawings, Thornton has installed paper shades to cover all the windows, muting the amount of light that can enter the room. Secretly, up high on one of these shades, where you would easily miss it, she has used a pin to prick tiny holes to spell "where is the power?" If you are standing in just the right spot, light filters brightly through the pin pricks, illuminating the text. In November House, Thornton’s project in a vacant home, the text appeared in pencil underneath a windowsill in an empty bedroom. In the Temporary Occupants exhibition at Eastfield College, it appeared in subtle paint on the wall near the entrance to the main stacks. The question is a kind of Zen koan: open, multiply applicable and ultimately unanswerable.

The second cell contains a more eclectic selection of drawings/objects. A thick rope half-dipped in white paint falls from what might be an escape hatch in the ceiling at the center of the room. The name of a former prisoner is etched into the wall and Thornton has appropriated this as a work, highlighting it by placing a stick, also half-white, on the wall next to it. There are several small drawings around the space placed at varying heights.  Several are so low that they require bending over to be seen. These drawings, completed at various times over the past decade, are a bit like the “where’s the power?” question. Moving from installation to installation, they are longer meditations extending in time, modulating through context. 


Across the room on the windowsill is an object that makes me laugh. From underneath a magnifying glass paperweight, Emily Dickinson’s familiar words radiate: “I heard a fly buzz when I died.” Next to the paperweight there’s a smaller, shiny black rock, a water-worn river pebble. Two things: one clear, airy, communicating text, manmade; the other: dark, impervious, dense, of the earth. Why the laughter? A moment of recognition? In order to hear a fly buzz when one dies, I imagine one would either have an incredible sense of mindfulness, an attunement to subtlety, or perhaps simply be distracted by minutia. Both possibilities relate to the process of making and receiving art. As a whole, this exhibitions breathes, at moments feeling sparse and empty, restrained, at others pregnant with meaning, association, accumulation of mark-making and time.

Terri Thornton: Binary System

Old Jail Art Center, Albany Texas
September 25, 2010 – January 23, 2011

Rebecca Carter is an artist, writer and teacher currently living in Dallas.

also by Rebecca Carter

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