The artist Raymond Hains plays an interesting game with us in his artwork Valises; an installation which comprises a utilitarian metal shelving system stacked with box files, metal Airbus cases and plastic packing crates filled with books and index cards.
The index cards that are visible read like an essay on a particular topic – could they be notes for a presentation (or references for a thesis) and the books themselves be the source material? The box files, which are closed to us, may contain papers of a manuscript and the metal cases could be full of real objects; artefacts to be presented.
The elements together create a simple colourscheme: blue, red, black and the silver of the shelving. It is office-like or academic. The arrangement of items seems careful and harmonious; colours are balanced and the mix of items seems broken up, so that no two shelves look the same. These choices seem to have been made for aesthetic reasons instead of the practicalities of filing the potential content.
Another aesthetic choice is the mixing of plastic crates with clear lids we can see into, alongside cases and box files that are closed to us. This contrast creates a mystery – we are intrigued by what we can see and tantalised by what we can’t.
Instead of being thematic, the books and notes are in fact personal; the volumes are taken from the artist’s own shelves and the notes from his general research. Seen in this light the work doesn’t paint a picture of a subject, but a person; the artist himself – shedding light on his personal and intellectual life.
I particularly like the potential posed by this work and the mystery of it – as if the artist is inviting us to draw a portrait of them from the limited raw materials provided. For me it is the books that activate the work, as each volume in the roughly packed crates could hold its own limitless potential for interpretation.
The supporting text describes the artist’s practice as ‘encyclopedic’, a term that seems particularly apt for this work.