by Charissa N. Terranova, PhD
I. A Brief Introduction to Object-Oriented Ontology
David Willburn makes objects about objects. It is a layered process involving an array of physical acts: building, drawing, folding, cutting, arranging, stitching, capturing, shooting, filtering, mounting, gluing, and so forth. In this complementary and often overlapping course of action, Willburn does not so much imbue objects with energy but reveal the energies unique and inherent to their atomic stuff. Objects in Willburn’s collective oeuvre seem to exist for themselves, each according to its own logic. They do not necessarily exist for humans. Each bears an ontology, a sense of being-in-the-world, which is not anthropomorphic, but ruled by forces within what philosopher Steven Shaviro describes as the “world-without-us.” They are part of:
the world as it exists apart from us – [which] cannot in any way be contained or constrained by the question of our access to it. “Man” is not the measure of all things. We habitually grasp the world in terms of our preimposed concepts. We need to break this habit in order to get at the strangeness of things in the world – that is, at the ways that they exist without being “posited” by us and without being “given” to or “manifested” by us.
Shaviro’s words about the world-without-us get at the crux of Object-Oriented Ontology, or OOO, a branch of the New Materialism within contemporary critical theory and philosophy that bears a strong sense of ecology. It is premised on a shift from human-centric epistemology, an idea of understanding based solely on human cognition, to a theory of ontology unfolding around the “democracy of objects.” In this realm an object is unique, bearing its own, specific set of qualities and functions, which are not to be understood according to human understanding but, to our best ability, within and for a world-without-us.
OOO is an ecological discourse because it levels the ontological playing ground between things, making “being” not just a concern for humans, but of all matter, living and un-living and its invariable interconnectedness. Within this world-without-us of interconnection, mind and consciousness are not solely the bailiwick of humans, but potentially a force within all matter, extending across fields and finding grounding within coalesced beings, be they rocks, dandelions, airplane propellers, stir-sticks, or birds. Following from Alfred North Whitehead’s philosophy of organism, the universe percolates with inherent creativity through, within, and between points of matter, through the organic and living as well as the inorganic an unliving: “ ‘life’ is therefore a matter of degree, of a more and a less; it can be identified relatively and situationally.”
II. David Willburn, Ontography, and the Interiority of the Home
Willburn’s expertise and handicraft are not about animation, breathing life into the un-living, but getting at the life that is already there, immanent to the thing. Willburn is intrigued with “how objects and spaces retain the memories of events,” to use his words. And they are not luxurious or elite things, but rather those that are at once useful and disinterested, central to daily function but often overlooked. They are the simple things that fill our life, that go unnoticed but without which we would be lost. In the paired placards that make up “Never too Far Apart” (2012), for example, he carefully stitched the outline of a showerhead and shower faucet handle. [Figs. 2, 3] The framed medallions stand atop thin wooden posts, striking a sense of object-ness that is somewhere between trophy, furniture, drawing, and painting. They are things about other things with subtle but intentional artistic cues. In the black threads dangling loosely from the images, Willburn has cleverly appropriated the drippy gestural flourish of the brushstroke of abstract painting, translating it anew for the realm of stitched and constructed object. In these sewn drawings of everyday things, he raises the banal and quotidian to the high reaches of conceptual fine art.
The showerhead and faucet are utilitarian tools that are essential to the domestic interior, a theme coursing throughout the work of Willburn. The artist immerses himself in studies of the household interior and crafted objects, researching the evolution of everyday home spaces and the objects dwelling within them. Words like “home,” “private life,” and “stitch” pepper the titles of his reading list, which includes Bill Bryson’s At Home: A Short History of Private Life, Irene Cieraad’s edited volume, At Home: an Anthropology of Domestic Space, Rozsika Parker’s Subversive Stitch: Embroidery and the Making of The Feminine, and Susan Stewart’s On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Souvenir, the Gigantic, the Collection. As with most people, the home for Willburn is a refuge. More specific to his creative practice, the home functions as a physical natural attractor, a multi-vectored temporal force of inspiration bound up with personal past experiences, lived events in the present, and his imaginings of the future. One might look to his childhood, to the years growing up jumping across the state of Texas, from Fort Stockton to Amarillo to Lubbock to Dallas, for another important source of Willburn’s preoccupation with the home. His fascination with the domestic interior within his art practice offers a counterpoint to these frequent moves.
Over the years, Willburn steadfastly cycled through the tribulations that accompany embracing the path of an artist. He found fecund and solid footing as a student at Eastfield College in the mid-1990s, only to find that his love of leaping would return, landing him in New England. Willburn enrolled in the unique practice-based low-residency MFA program in Montpelier at the Vermont College of the Fine Arts, graduating with his degree in 2004. He then returned to Texas, spending the four subsequent years as an exhibiting artist at 500X Gallery, Dallas’s oldest and longest standing Kunsthalle. In these years, Willburn also returned to Eastfield as an instructor. Today he is Professor of Design and Fibers, Visual Arts Program Coordinator at Eastfield College. Home is now the DFW Metroplex.
In Willburn’s art-making, the home is, more precisely, a magnet shivering with the energies of existence. It is a space of bodies, shapes, and beings broadly conceived, that is to say, those that are living and non-living, organic and artificial. Dogs, toaster ovens, television sets, cats, light switches, pillows, thermostats, doorknobs, hot-water heaters, ottomans, husbands, dust bunnies, wives, can openers, daughters, ovens, sons, and the list goes on: these are the things of everyday life, some of which inhabit the realm of Wilburn’s home-and-studio. Ion Bogost calls such lists “ontography,” a term he uses “as a name for a general inscriptive strategy, one that uncovers the repleteness of units and their interobjectivity.” The prefix, or first half of the word, “onto” comes from the Greek “ontos,” which means “being” and the suffix, or second, “graphy” comes from the Greek “graphe,” which means “writing”. The lists thus provide examples of the “writing of being” – a set of inscriptions “in which a particular configuration is celebrated merely on the basis of its existence.” Willburn’s works and the materials that he uses read similarly: showerhead, faucet handle, wood, enamel, acrylic, muslin, bathroom, chartreuse flag, and lagoon. Though seemingly deadpan, things like this are interrelated in Willburn’s art practice. They are connectors, making relations in space and bringing together the sentient and non-sentient. Far from countering mobility through fixity, the ontography at work in Willburn’s practice bears witness to the changing world of things. Willburn’s ontographical practice inscribes security in change, the love of transformation garnered by the careful scrutiny of objects. It is all about teasing out the specificity of these things, getting at their strangeness and material complexities.
The showerhead and faucet handle manifest what New Materialist philosopher Graham Harman calls “tool-being”: the ontological status of being necessary, used, familiar, but ignored. Harman explains:
For the most part, objects are implements taken for granted, a vast environmental backdrop supporting the thin and volatile layer of our explicit activities. All human action finds itself lodged amidst countless items of supporting equipment: the most nuanced debates in a laboratory stand at the mercy of a silent bedrock of floorboards, bolts, ventilators, gravity, and atmospheric oxygen…For the most part, they work their magic upon reality without entering our awareness. Equipment is forever in action, constructing in each moment the sustaining habitat where our explicit awareness is on the move.
Yet, the showerhead and faucet handle for Wilburn bear a romanticism that is personal and titillating, while every bit as quotidian as their function implies. In explaining them, Willburn refers to his partner, also named David. “I'm often thinking about spaces and objects that,” he explains, “connect me to David, but in ways that can be intimate and separate at the same time.”
III. Things about Things between Literal Representation and Abstraction
In Willburn’s work, the things and the things they show are sometimes very literal, hewn with an acute sense of representation as with “Did anyone ever think to tell him? How is he supposed to know what we think if no one tells him?” (2007). [Fig. 4] While representing the very substantial piece of furniture that is an armchair and a ceiling lamp hanging overhead, the piece was in fact temporary and site-specific, painted directly onto the wall at 500X Gallery. He attached to its would-be edges a fringe of yarn, which not only heightened the trompe l’oeil of the piece but also gave it a palpable sense of softness and tactility. Willburn also builds and renders things about things in the abstract, as with his latest body of painted and sewn pieces that unfold around the use of a small, circular mirror. From this work, “In The Bathroom with a Chartreuse Flag” (2015) is sewn, constructed, and painted, constituting a tour de force of artistic references both overt and subliminal. In the circle at the bottom center, one discerns the barest sense of a human outline. It is sewn a self-portrait of Willburn, an image of himself rendered in reversal as it was evinced through the looking glass of a small, round mirror. The circular, reflection-mediated image harkens back to other mirror-centric works of art such as Jan van Eyck’s “Arnolfini Portrait” (1434) and Diego Velázquez’s “Las Meninas” (1656). The vertical swatch of yellow-green fabric, identified as a “chartreuse flag,” suggest the Spartan elementalism of Russian Suprematism, while the vertical line of wood up top connects the piece to that other force within the historical Russian avant-garde, Constructivism. But ultimately the piece, with its intimacy, thoughtfulness, and carefully handmade quality, is quintessentially twenty-first-century Willburn.
Things are things in and of themselves. Willburn’s “The Overuse of Everything” (2011) plays out the flowing feedback loop inherent to things, using an array of artistic grammars, including representation, structural functionalism, and the abstraction of sculptural space. An image of the installation shows a field of objects that are at once things-for-humans and things-for-things, offering a fruitful catalyst for discourse rooted in OOO. [Fig. 5] In the installation, structures, drawings, and their constitutive energies pulsate through the large open space of the Dallas Contemporary, the bare-bones concrete blocks of which provide a fascinating mise-en-scène for the play of Willburn’s things. Each armature has its own ontology, making for a field of “vital materialism” in which “every thing is entelechial, life-ly, vitalistic.” Several wooden structures stand within the barren, bunker-like space, each holding a small, grey, felt tableau depicting a fragmented scene of drawn-and-sewn interiors. One shows the edge of a bed, the end of puffy pillow, and a bedside table in full view. [Fig. 6] A lamp, framed picture, and telephone sit on the bedside table. They are again rendered in the expressive sinews of threads, with each stitch penetrating through the fabric, emerging out the other side, leaving within its passage a footed marking the further repetition of which delineates an image. Loose strands hang suggestively from the felt image. Felt, wood, thread, bed, pillow, telephone, and lamp create another ontography, “an aesthetic set theory” functioning as “a record of things juxtaposed to demonstrate their overlap and [how they] imply interaction through collocation.” The dangling strings blow within the wind of movement made by a passing viewer, revealing the interaction of different beings and interconnecting ontologies. Between them, cognition takes hold and mind becomes site-specific, extended through the matters of a shared moment at the Dallas Contemporary in 2011.
IV. Conclusion: What is it like to be a Mirror and an Embroidery Loop?
I conclude this essay with a twofold question elicited by Willburn’s latest body of work: What is like to be a mirror and an embroidery hoop? In asking this question I connect “The Neon Lagoon (with Berg),” “Green, Copper, Greens,” and “Navy Space with Golds,” all works by Willburn from 2016, to the question, which is a thematic force of OOO: What is it like to be a thing? [Fig. 7] Serving the discourse of OOO as infrastructure, it is based on philosopher of mind Thomas Nagel’s seminal essay, “What is it like to be a bat?” (1974). In this essay, Nagel uses the bat, and its sonar-centric sensorium, to argue not so much that the bat’s cognition does not exist because it is unlike the human’s or that it is impossible to know. Rather, the uniqueness of bat cognition signals for Nagel a recognition of the uniqueness of cognition across the living and unliving. It is an argument for the idea of “panpsychism,” distributed cognition, and “the view that the basic physical constituents of the universe have mental qualities, whether or not they are parts of living organisms.” It is a bountiful and fathomless question, serving as a springboard for adventures into what Bogost calls “alien phenomenology” and Shaviro describes as a decentering “discognition,” the latter of which opens the field to querying, “What is it like to be a computer?” or “What is like to be a slimemold?”
So, in this spirit, I ask: What is like to be a mirror and an embroidery hoop? The two-part question bears something of a Gordian knot for OOO, in that, while our unmitigating anthropomorphism (that we are trapped in human bodies) keeps us from knowing fully what it is like to be a thing, in this case, a mirror and an embroidery hoop, the call to arms of OOO is precisely to try to understand objects beyond ourselves, according to their own parameters. Shaviro prompts his readers, “we must think outside our own thought, and we must positively conceive the existence of things outside our own conceptions of them.” Let us use Willburn’s objects about objects to get at the understanding of this question, what it might be like to be, in this instance, a mirror and an embroidery hoop.
In each of the three, above mentioned works by Willburn, there is a circular form, which we can assume to be the index of a circular mirror and a reference to the form-giving mechanism that is an embroidery hoop. In “Neon Lagoon (with Berg),” the circle is complete and contains the outline of a figure sewn atop a field of hazy grey and black. A white craggy painted form, the “berg,” sits atop the sewn figure in the background. In “Green, Copper, Greens,” the circular form of the mirror and embroidery hoop is virtually gone, with its vestige present in the curvature of the layered forms on the bottom right corner of the image plane. In “Navy Space with Golds” the iconic circle of the mirror and embroidery hoop is slightly more legible, with an almost fully present curving form. Based on these three objects about objects by Willburn, one understands something essential about Willburn’s art, and his quest for an understanding of objects. The viewer deduces not so much that it is impossible to know what it is like to be a mirror or an embroidery hoop, but rather that these everyday objects sustain Willburn’s practice. They are essential to his thinking and making. And in turn, by looking at and thinking about them we come to an understanding that ontology – any ontology – moves and changes. Being is in flux: it is never inert, one, or monological. It is always many and diverse. The ontology of a mirror and an embroidery hoop are, here, in media res, in between things. Through the skein of interconnectedness we discern a world of ontologies on equal footing: Willburn, his mirror, and his embroidery hoop.
Learn more about David Willburn on the artist's Profile.
 Shaviro, Steven, The Universe of Things: On Speculative Realism (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2014) 66-67.
 Shaviro, 66.
 Bryant, Levi, The Democracy of Objects (Ann Arbor, MI: Open Humanities Press, 2011).
 Shaviro. 62-63.
 Bogost, Ian, Alien Phenomenology, or What It’s like to Be a Thing (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minneapolis Press, 2012) 38.
 Bogost, 38.
 Harman, Graham, Tool-Being: Heidegger and the Metaphysics of Objects (Chicago: Open Court, 2002) 18.
 Shaviro, 62 quoting Jane Bennet, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010) 62. “Entelechy” is an Aristotelian term referring to the vital potential or energy driving a living form through development to full mature form.
 Bogost, 38.
 Nagel, Thomas, "What Is It Like to Be a Bat?", The Philosophical Review. (1974), 83 (4): 435–450.
 Nagel, Thomas, Mortal Questions (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991) 181 quoted in Shaviro, 85.
 Shaviro, 67.