King Woman (Pen & Brush- NYC)

Hi there,

Last Thursday I attended the opening exhibition party for “King Woman” at Pen & Brush. This exhibition, featuring 25 emerging and existing female-identifying artists, spanned the two floors of the gallery on East 22nd Street. After taking in the paintings, photographs, and sculptures on the ground floor, I descended the industrial staircase to a lower level filled with more artwork (and a bustling bar serving both mimosas and chocolate chip sea salt cookies). It was incredible to see so many people at the opening- easily 300 or more. I have attended openings with significantly fewer visitors, perhaps due to the ease in which people may purchase art online. It is a testament to Pen & Brush’s importance as an institution that there were hundreds of people there to support, discuss, and buy the works of art.

Pen & Brush was founded in 1894 by an incredible painter named Janet C. Lewis who was frustrated by the exclusivity of the male-dominated literary and artistic scenes in New York City. For the past 123 years, Pen & Brush has served as both an incubator and and a platform for emerging and existing female talent.

It is only natural, then, that “King Woman” was curated by Mashona Tifrere. In 2016, Tifrere founded ArtLeadHER, an organization that mentors female artists. In the exhibition catalogue Tifrere writes, “[These artists show] that women can be more than Goddess or Queen: that they are capable of being the pinnacle of power and strength. That they are capable of being King.” She goes on to explain that the featured artists celebrate their gender, but are not confined by it. This point hits home for many women- haven’t we all been told at some point that we were pretty smart… for a girl? The artists in “King Woman” are talented, smart, creative, emotional, and powerful women. They celebrate their womanhood. Simultaneously, they are kings, and their gender is just one aspect of their rule.

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I got the chance to speak more about this dual identity with Stephanie Hirsch. When asked about the tendency of female artists to become “pigeon-holed into a feminist camp” Hirsch explained how she was able to celebrate her womanhood without being labeled. “I think the stereotype of a feminist is inherently changing,” she wrote, “but I still think it has some pretty harsh connotations. I do not need to be harsh to get my message across. I use beautiful imagery and strong words as a juxtaposition. A woman can be beautiful and stand tall and proud in her peaceful power.” Hirsch’s work is not an expression of feminist discourse but a celebration of all aspects of femininity. It also delves into a variety of other themes, such as self-growth and spiritual exploration.

Indestructible (2016) epitomizes Hirsch’s perspective.

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With Indestructible, Hirsch has constructed a beaded garden wonderland. Leaves and flowers decorate the surface of the canvas, sprouting vibrant petals of red, purple, blue, and yellow. They sparkle in the light as one’s eyes travel the canvas,  making the experience of consuming Indestructible dynamic and ever-changing. The artist also includes the figure of a snake and that of a skull (the latter in the center bottom portion of the canvas). As Hirsch notes in the exhibition catalogue, gardens often symbolize personal growth. The combination of symbols indicating both life and death highlights this metaphor. As one develops physically, intellectually and emotionally, his spirit blossoms like a flower. However, there is temptation all around, shown here in the guise of a snake, a symbol established in Genesis. In the first book of the Bible, the snake tempts Eve to eat a forbidden apple which leads to man’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden. The snake is now synonymous with treachery and temptation. Secondly, the small beaded skull symbolizes the inevitability of death. Though the snake and the skull serve as contemporary memento mori (reminders of death), the overall message of Indestructible is not to live in fear of mortality. If anything, Indestructible reminds the viewer of the inevitability of the circle of life. Yes, life bears death, but death will surely give way for more life.

The presence of the superimposed title over the garden imagery underlines this concept. Flowers, snakes, and skulls are all ephemeral objects, but something here is indestructible. Hirsch writes that gardens within our souls experience a rotation of light and darkness. She emphasizes the fact that it is impossible for life to ever stay the same– one must come to terms with this and accept life for what it is. Perhaps the soul, then, is what is indestructible. The very existence of the garden- though its appearance may change- is everlasting.

And so, Indestructible reflects themes of self-growth and the life cycle. It references the female experience through the allusion to Adam & Eve, and perhaps the femininity of a garden scene, but its purpose is greater. The use of beads as a medium allow for the multiplicity of associations Indestructible bears. “I use beading intentionally for its literal and figurative depth,” wrote Hirsch, “and [for its] illumination to higher consciousness.”

 

You can read more about Stephanie Hirsch on her website, here.

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I also really enjoyed the artwork of Azi Amiri, who I had the good fortune of talking to at the opening. Amiri is an Iranian artist whose work explores the expression and perception of Muslim identity. She focuses especially on how Muslim women are dehumanized in society. Take a look at the work she exhibited at “King Woman,” I Am A Dreamer (2012).

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And here are several details of the work:

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For I Am A Dreamer, Amiri wrote to her friends in Iran and asked them to send her photographs of themselves wearing a hijab. She then removed the faces and bodies from the images, leaving behind colorful hijabs wrapped around invisible faces. Each hijab is positioned differently and made of different colorful fabrics. As Amiri explained to me, women express their individuality through their hijab. She also described the rebellious way with which many women in Iran position their hijab, so that some of their hair is visible. According to Amiri, “The way you wear a scarf is the statement you make in a way that shows on which side of the game you are standing. Depending on how tightly you wear the scarf or how much hair you are revealing, you may affirm how much you approve the force behind the mandatory hijab.” Thus, choosing to reveal a lot of hair is a statement against the mandatory nature of the hijab. The women in I Am A Dreamer exist along a “spectrum of believers and non-believers,” revealing varying amounts of their hair. In this way Amiri used the hijab to communicate  the diversity of Muslim women.

Amiri also asked her friends to send a sentence, beginning with “I,” about themselves. Some of Amiri’s responses were simple and light-hearted (I am slowly falling asleep at the keyboard zzzzzzzz.) Others were poignant reinforcements of identity (I am confident enough to follow my heart.) These sentences reflect genuine human thoughts that are not exclusive to Muslim women. By including these universal thoughts beside images of Muslim identity, Amiri informs the viewer of the humanity and diversity of Muslim women. It is an important service she undertakes, as Muslim women are often dehumanized and de-individualized.

The effect of the work is powerful. It does not feel like an attack on the viewer for having preconceived prejudices. The colors are soft, the images are arranged in a balanced grid, and the words are written in a genial typeface. But the calmness with which Amiri communicates is precisely what gets through to even the densest of viewers. She pulls us in with the grid’s hypnotic nature and then hits us with the realization of our prejudices. In this way Amiri adeptly handles both the political and physical material of her work in order to communicate with her viewers.

 

You can read more about Azi Amiri’s work on her website, here. You will notice that she works in a wide range of styles, which I found fascinating. She works in printmaking, painting, drawing, sculpture, video, and digital mediums. Says Amiri, “Mediums are different containers for your thoughts and ideas… Those times that I just want to touch and feel the softness, whiteness, and smooth surface of a paper, I am not going to use anything else.”

If you’d like to work with Amiri, check out her art-making workshops at the Met. On November 4th she will be leading a free printmaking workshop at the World Culture Festival. Check it out!

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When I descended the stairwell to the lower level I was instantly drawn to Lynn Spoor’s  Flower Path (2017). It was lit so beautifully the colors seemed to jump off the canvas. Take a look at this mesmerizing piece below:

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I looked at Flower Path before reading its title. The swaths of blue swept downwards with a palette knife reminded me of waterfalls and distorted reflections. I felt as if I were staring into the water beside a meadow, taking in the contents of the meadow through their reflections alone. Gone are the specificities of form. They are replaced by color, rippling through water with the aid of light.

When I spoke to Spoor, she was pleased to hear that Flower Path had conjured up such strong nature imagery. She then explained that she is from the Netherlands. Born in Beverwijk and residing now in IJmuiden, Spoor is surrounded by the colorful Dutch countryside. Her upbringing was marked by rainbow-colored tulips. On the surface, Flower Path is an abstract depiction of Dutch flora.

But there is much more at play here. Spoor has mixed acrylic paint with metallic silver and gold to create a dynamic surface texture. When hit with light, the metallic components of Flower Path glow, illuminating the entire painting. However, this is an effect which is felt rather than seen. I cannot pinpoint where exactly the patches of silver and gold have been added. They have been blended too well into the work as a whole. As a result, the glimmering canvas bears a mysterious quality. There is something at work here the viewer cannot understand which renders the work incandescent- perhaps it is divine.

The replacement of form with color is integral to the communication of Spoor’s emotional message. As it is written in the exhibition catalogue, “Reflecting [Spoor’s] energy and state of mind when painting, color will take precedence over shape, departing from the distraction of realism.” I sympathize with the notion that form can be distracting. Spoor’s colors are so rich in feeling; so liberated by the freedom with which they brush over the canvas. To contain them to rigid forms would rid them of their emotional volume.

Furthermore, the richness of Spoor’s colors and their freedom on the canvas reflect her desire to evoke positivity. “Today, it is a reflection of re-capturing and appreciating purity through [my] colors, brushstrokes and textures,” Spoor writes. “It is returning purity back into a world that has lost its way.” This idea is built off the underlying assumption that art can impact people’s feelings and actions. As a strong proponent for the ability of art to transform the viewer, I believe that Spoor’s vibrant canvases do have the capability to return positivity to a wayward society. It is impossible not to feel an overwhelming sense of light and happiness when gazing upon Flower Path. This is the sort of immense feeling needed to heal a broken world.

 

You can read more about Lynn Spoor on her website, here. You’re bound to come away from it feeling lighter and more at peace.

 

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I also took great interest in the paintings of Renee Phillips. I had a full conversation with the woman standing next to me about how tangible Phillips’ canvases are. They make you want to dive into them and roll around in rivers of pastel-colored paint. Take a look at Meditation XXXII (2017) and I’m sure you’ll experience the same urge:

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Here are two close-up images of Meditation XXXII, if you weren’t already enticed. Note the clarity of color and variety of texture and depth:

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Phillips was inspired to create the Meditations series during the pregnancy of her first child. I love the way Phillips described this experience in the exhibition catalogue, and I will quote it here:

“During pregnancy a profound internal shift was occurring. I found myself at the threshold of change; shedding old adolescent beliefs and habitual behavior. Raw emotion introduced clarity in thought and perspective; my once hard exterior was realized to be a facade, and a softness emerged that was grounded in true strength, authenticity, and love.”

I love this passage because it so clearly manifested itself in Phillip’s work. The nature of the enamel paint in Meditation XXXII is dynamic. It feels as if we have frozen time just as a wash of paint were being poured carefully over the canvas. It pools in places, following the laws of gravity and matter. The dynamism of the work reflects the spiritual and emotional growth Phillip’s underwent during a formative period. On the canvas, Phillips performs her own transformation. Furthermore, she performs the disruption of her old way of life. Layers of paint pile on top of one another, reflecting the build-up of experiences that have led to her present self.

I felt a very strong feminine energy exuding from Meditation XXXII. I started to see reconfigured female anatomy- was I imagining this? I questioned Phillips on the matter, and she told me that she uses her entire body to pour the enamel paint on her canvases. She referred to this movement as a sort of guiding “dance.” Thus, “the subconscious undercurrent of feminine energy in [that dance]” is what provided Meditation XXXII its intense feminist associations.

Additionally, Phillips ought to add “scientist” to her CV. When I asked about the extraordinary quality of her colors and textures, she revealed the scientific manner in which she studies paint before beginning her art-making dance. She spends hours taking notes on how paint dries depending on viscosity and temperature. Writes Phillips, “These studies help me further investigate time, gravy, and movement for each color so I know how to manipulate the paint on larger works.” She describes the experience as “peaceful and contemplative.”

The combination of dance, science, and painting in the creation of something beautiful exemplifies the power of the interdisciplinary. I am very passionate about incorporating art in the classroom, especially in conjunction with math and science. It was lovely to see a work incorporate a concept so near and dear to my heart.

 

You can read more about Renee Phillips on her website, here. In the meantime, I’ll leave you with another work from the “Meditations” series. Meditation IX (2017) is too beautiful to leave out.

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In the 1970s, Jane Olin was living in California, where male photographers like Ansel Adams were gaining recognition for their vistas of the western American landscape. Olin and her fellow female photographers fought to be included in gallery shows due to their supposed inferiority. Rather than cave to the “limits and rules” imposed by male photographers as the status quo, Olin formed a salon to support her fellow female photographers. In this environment, they thrived, breaking boundaries of photography and slowly securing themselves a place in the Monterey Bay art scene.

Today, Olin’s work reflects her personal experience fighting for recognition. It is deeply personal, and I am so pleased I got to hear her story to supplement my viewing experience.

Greta: A Woman’s Journey of Self Discovery (2017) is composed of four silver gelatin prints. Take a look:

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There is a very tangible tension to Greta. I believe it is a product of the figures’ evocative gestures and their intentional blurring. Greta is photographed in four installments. One version of Greta imagines her standing in a box, holding a square object in one hand. Another shows her recoiling slightly from the camera. A third is a nude torso. The last shows Greta clasping her mouth and wrist. It is only natural to question the purpose of these poses. And yet, the slight blurring of each image prevents the viewer from making full contact with each photograph. We are left in a constant state of curiosity, desperate to make sense of the emotional content spilling out of each work. We want to know who Greta is and how she feels.

I asked Olin about the figures’ gestures and blurry surface quality. She responded that Greta is a demonstration of women’s marginalization. Women have been trying to overcome their subordination for thousands of years. We are in a state of constant movement, as we try to move forward, and perhaps fall short of our ambitions due to external conditions. The soft, out of focus quality of the photographs represents this constant motion. This metaphor is complicated by the fact that the viewer does not know if the figures are coming in or out of focus. Is Greta moving towards her hopes and dreams, or is she in the process of being stifled? Olin asks, “Is Greta holding her hand over her mouth or is she finally pulling her hand away?”

The images represent various moments along Greta’s journey to find her voice in a world that asks her to be silent. The figure of a nude, standing tall with her shoulders back and her breasts pushed unabashedly forward, is delightfully positive. Her definitive gaze, meeting that of the viewer, is determined. Meanwhile, her position in a box demonstrates her mobility, and her recoiling from the camera reveals her instinctive response to fear.

Olin discovered the soft, out of focus quality that is central to Greta purely by accident. She neglected to refocus her enlarger in the dark room and her prints came out slightly blurry. “It felt mysterious to me,” said Olin, “I felt a visceral acknowledgment that this was how I wanted to print this body of work. I went back and reprinted the images that I had already printed in this way.  This printing method underscored how I feel about the process of empowerment and self-realization.”

 

This August, “Salon Jane” will exhibit the work of its six members at the Monterey Museum of Art. I am hoping to be there and see more of Olin’s evocative photographs. In the meantime, I will have to appease myself with her website, which you can explore here.

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Lastly, I want to take some time to discuss Kharis Kennedy’s deeply moving Glove Scarf by Dolce & Gabbana (2017). Take a look:

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My eye goes first to the white gloves entangled around the figure’s face. Due to the red and brown markings on her neck, I assumed that the gloves were strangling her. When I asked Kennedy about this, she responded ambiguously. “I am interested in the physicality and energy inherent in not only our bodies,” she wrote, “but also in objects. I wanted it to be unclear whether her neck, a place of physical vulnerability, is being actively injured, or if her covering of [her injury] is incidental.” I love this response. It pinpoints what is so uncanny about this painting. The neck is an instinctively vulnerable body part- did you just touch your neck protectively? I did. Kennedy pairs this association with a seemingly innocent object- a pair of gloves. Suddenly, the gloves take on this monstrous image. Are there invisible hands inside, strangling her? Who on earth would strangle someone with gloves? Who would strangle her in the first place? The mind is a whirlwind of associations and anxiety regarding the personification of a pair of gloves.

My next thought when looking at Glove Scarf by Dolce & Gabbana was to consider the title of the piece. What could the name-dropping of this designer have to do with our protagonist? (Notice how I said “our.” In about .3 seconds I established a connection with this figure.) Kennedy’s art often explores “how clothing/fashion can be used as both a signifier of class and as a public expression of one’s inner world.” It is typical of Kennedy to satirize how fashion is used to construct both group and individual identities. With this in mind, the gloves bear additional associations. Perhaps Kennedy is suggesting that our protagonist is a victim of the stylistic trends that dictate her race, gender, and/or class? On the other hand, the nonchalant draping of these gloves around her neck, and their transformation into a scarf, could represent the proudness with which she has constructed her own individual identity. Her wide-legged seated position and upturned chin suggest this approach. Her stance is not unlike the many men who frequent the subway with each leg sprawled to the side. (Do they lack spatial awareness or just social awareness? Jury is still out). Our protagonist sits this way intentionally, to claim her own power. Both are appropriate readings, though I prefer the second. In an exhibition entitled “King Woman,” I think it’s most appropriate.

When I asked Kennedy about the possible reference, she responded that the connection was not intentional. However, her exploration of the female gaze situates Glove Scarf in the same vein as these past works. There remains a key difference that identifies Kennedy’s work as the most contemporary- her agency. Olympia’s agency in Manet’s titular painting is often debated. While her razor-sharp gaze zeroes in on the viewer, her obvious occupation as a courtesan suggests only an illusion of self-sufficiency. Kennedy’s protagonist is also in a state of undress for ambiguous reasons. However, as Kennedy writes, “What is known is that she accepts her vulnerable state and through acceptance remains empowered.”

I was also struck by the presence of the black cat. It reminded me of the many manifestations of the female nude shown with an animal. Note this trend in Titian’s Venus of Urbino and Manet’s Olympia.

I feel this truth in her petulant upturned chin, her refusal to make direct eye contact, and her wide-legged stance. Her independence manifests itself in black stiletto heels and red underwear- markers of both seduction and power. The black cat- her spirit animal, as Kennedy says, looks out at the viewer. We haven’t been given the chance to turn away before the black cat crosses our path; She is in control.

You can read more about Kharis Kennedy on her website, here

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I hope you enjoyed this analysis of several key works in “King Woman.” It has been wonderful delving into the works of these six artists. Their artwork touched me and the way they discussed their artwork compelled me to share their artwork with you. If you’ve been as moved by this series as I have been, please follow up on the artists exhibited in King Woman. The following are the remaining (incredible) artists, whose work contributed to the triumph that is King Woman.

Ingrid BaarsHunter Clarke, Donna FestaCarole FeuermanLola FlashKit Kang, Meredith MarsoneLacey McKinneyYvonne MichielsReisha PerlmutterTrixie PittsA.V. RockwellVictoria SelbachSwoonTaïraRoos van der Vliet, Elizabeth Waggelt, and Lynnie Z. 

Thanks to all of the artists who shared their art and their words with me. Thank-you also to Dawn Delikat, Lani Doktori, and Janice Sands at Pen & Brush for sharing the story of Pen & Brush with me.

Until next time!

xoxo,

Chloe ❤

CHloe

 

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Spotlight on Clayton Woolery

I first encountered Clayton Woolery in a basement on Ossipee Road by Tufts University, during his performance Removing Targets in our final Pokykhroma exhibition. I had been unfortunately under the weather for his previous performance with Polykhroma, so I was delightfully in the dark about Woolery’s work. All I knew was what the other curators had told me– that his work was both simple and complex, utilizing simplistic, repetitive movements to unravel multifaceted ideas. Removing Targets was no exception.

He began by unpacking a large plastic shopping bag and setting up its contents on the floor. Woolery brought with him a mental contraption, a long stretch of green Ikea packing paper, white paste, and folded clothing, amongst other items. He then began setting up the paper on the contraption, so that the front of the paper was stretched across the metal and onto the floor in neat folds. Then, the writing commenced. Take a look:

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Woolery would write in thick, capital letters on the stretch of paper until a certain amount had been filled with words. He then removed the paper and stood to attach it to the posterior wall.

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By the end of the evening, Woolery himself was caged within the metal contraption, layers and layers of inscribed paper all over the walls and floor of the space. Phrases such as “REMOVING ENGLISH” and “BURY ME” overwhelmed both his figure and the space, taking on a louder voice than the harsh din of the exhibition opening occurring behind him.

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The entire experience was mesmerizing. Woolery moved with a quiet fluidity, seemingly unaware of voyeurs. There were six other (wonderful) concurrent exhibitions and more than fifty people in the basement at time, but Woolery remained in his space, only concerned with the world he was building on plaster and stone. A small group of us stood for long stretches of time, watching him. It felt meditative to follow his smooth, repetitive movements. The build-up of materials also carried a hypnotic weight. The more Woolery himself was covered up in paper the more I craved an understanding of these cryptic texts. Simultaneously, the more I attempted to decode these texts, the less alphabetical they seemed. Though they signified what I instinctively knew those words to mean, their entire meaning became clouded. The sheer amount of words made it difficult to zero in on one verbal idea. Instead, the entire mass of words seemed to be the subject; the concept of language as a whole.

After the show, I was eager to hear more from Woolery about Removing Targets. It had been a spellbinding experience for me, but I was curious if my interpretation matched what Woolery had walked into Ossippee Road hoping to impart on viewers. I also had many questions about his perspective on the art world– after all, millennial/Gen Z artists are carving out the future of art-making and consumption.

We met for tea at Diesel Cafe and discussed all the above. It was important to me to connect with Woolery on a human level. If we involve technology in every interaction we have, we dilute their importance int he moment. It can come to feel like every action we take is made for the purpose of documentation. And so, my conversation with Woolery was unrecorded. It flowed naturally in all directions, leisurely making its way around to all my questions.

I followed up with an email asking Woolery to answer questions that related to our discussion the day before. And so, before you is a condensed version of our free-form conversation at Diesel Cafe. Read on to discover the truth behind Removing Targets and the details of Woolery’s artistic practice.

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CH: Tell me more about your performance piece at Polykhroma! What inspired it? What were you hoping to accomplish? I’d love to detail for my readers your explorations with language.

CW: Removing Targets stems from a longer term incrimination of language that inflects my art practice.  Embedded in every language are the cultural mores of the society developing that language, and American English is a prime example. From polarized gender expression to phonaesthetic regimes (i.e. “this is america: speak english!”) even the most radical explorations of meaning making must tread the fraught space of language, which flattens the relationship between signifier and signified. I first came in touch with these ideas in the context of queer theory and incorporate them into an abject, provisional art ethics.

In performing a durational “exorcism” of language I wanted to explicitly place myself and my presentation of myself in the paradoxical dimension of western ideas of utopia/dystopia. I caged myself in my nicest clothes, accompanied by many indicators of conspicuous consumption (swell bottle, DSLR, tablet, “Madewell” bag) and began to work tirelessly unpacking these contents from a laundry bag that illustrates a certain cluttered world view in the form of a red, white, and blue target.  In truth the material elements of the performance are selected specifically but treated anonymously— the experience of the performance, im sure, was that of watching a hunched, billowing scribe attack long swaths of green ikea packing paper.

The language I graft, paradoxically, too, was a free form treatise on how best to achieve utopia, a line of thinking that quickly falls apart. I was left to sift through my tattered science fictions and face the apparent long-windedness white men are afforded in magisterial and abject spaces. Here I’ve gone on for so long!


CH: How did your work change once you got into the space?

CW: Performance art in my experience always feels like a circus I am stubbornly staging alone. It was important in terms of labor and exhaustion for the actor in this piece to be myself, and therefore I didnt want to have myself elevated or removed in my original conception of the work.

When viewing “Art” people have accepted the training of galleries and museums and, in this scenario, even being in a basement could not counteract the formation of spectacle. The work became highly dissociative, with a clear ring of people several feet from me. I felt no ability or desire to draw them closer, and allowed this to free me from attempting to be legible in the ways I had planned to be.  I let the action take center stage and released myself from an obligation to posture their experience. It became about execution and in many ways simplified helpfully the extravaganza of content i had prepared.

(Quick note: I was a dedicated member of the ‘ring of people’ watching. I can attest to the strange energy between performer and voyeur during Woolery’s performance. It is true that he made no attempt to invite us in, in fact seemed completely oblivious to our existence, and yet we were too mesmerized to turn away. What resulted was  an uneasy balance, like a rope tied tightly between two points, vibrating from the tension.)


CH: We talked about how your work bridges the gap between wall-painting and performance art, as you enact the application of art to wall surfaces. Tell me more about this middle ground you’ve created.

CW: The terminology that is sticking the most for the work I’m doing is “performed composition.” I am presenting a collection of abject materials and material applications that deliver a sense of provisional and incomplete gestures, thus opening a space for this completion to occur in the form of live or instructional interventions.  This then creates a space beyond indication for the labor of creativity — you see the activity of painting in a Pollock, but never is that labor performed and examined as the painting itself.  This is to say that painting is an action and never an object. Furthermore, such actions that result in aesthetic (performative) objects are yet another form of labor.  I am highlighting a critical need for a reevaluation of labor.  Who is doing the work that makes this industry possible? What meaning can be derived from being delusional about this labor, and the cost of supporting the arts but not the artists? The space is really one that seeks to excavate work from an artwork, and place it coyly in the gallery.  It is also a post-studio space that problematizes ideas of finish and rarification that make the art world a beacon for ridicule.


CH: What generally inspires you creatively? Who are your influences?

CW: Creativity is a box full of lenses with which seeing can be filtered.  I get inspired when I am able to identify something between two previously separate elements that the lens of poetry, theory, activism, etc. may make apparent.  So it can be anything, most often occurences in my daily life are the beginnings of my favorite pieces. There can’t be an end or border on the creative practice.  But these thoughts have sources, such as Joseph Beuys and J. Jack Halberstam.  I take particular interest in and support works by established artists such as Sarah Sze, Janin Antoni, and Edgar Arceneaux, as well as emerging artists like Jesse Kanda and Puppies Puppies.


CH: What do you think is the role of the artist in society today? How do you see yourself fitting into that role?

The artist has an identity crisis on their hands.  Some art theorists and practitioners believe, as Donald Judd put it, that the ideal artist is “original and obdurate; they’re the gravel in the pea soup.” However this breaking of homogeneity operates from a space of art as a service for or against society rather than as a labor intrinsic to it. Do artists seek harmony or discord, and is seeking either through art only a swinging pendulum? I am inticed by more collective action in the art world, allowing for the tyranny of the artist-ego (Foucault’s “author-function”) to be subsumed into a symbiotic relationship with radically earthy art institutions.  I am wanting everyone to feel inclined to say “I am an artist” or at least understand the importance of establishing an ecosystem for the consumption and recapitulation of art.


CH: What do you think is the role of the curator in society today? We discussed how positive the dialogue was between artist and curator in the Polykhroma exhibit. Tell me more about how you envision the relationship between the two to be.

CW: Developing an active and attentive community that balances artist and audience, resources and risks, taste and tact, has always been the admirable and impossible task of curators.  Igniting an appreciation for engagement with ideas is crucial; placards and pacing and replication of the white cube, however, are hindering this endeavor.  Curators must really open artists, technicians, and audiences to the possibility of doing things differently than how they believe they must do them, and in turn reap unexpected and surprising results in the pursuit of inventive solutions to the problem of the gallery.


CH: We talked about spectacle art and blockbuster exhibits. Tell me a bit more about your thoughts on this trend. 

CW: I have heard about 15 different takes on the Whitney Biennial. As someone who decided, in light of the protests of Black Americans against the showing of Dana Schutz’ Open Casket, to abstain from visiting as an act of solidarity, I have yet to hear a review that is positive and descriptive.  People no longer know why they go see the things they go see. Institutional loyalty precludes the mass acceptability of exhibitions— and there is money to be made.   And we see even further surreal elements of the same show: Katy Perry promoting her singles by hiding beneath a silver serving tray to the beguiled response of visitors to the Whitney, who have paid $18-$25 dollars to believe they are spending an afternoon devoid of such marketing. In late capitalism this form of collective cognitive dissonance is not surprising. Art cannot settle for its current place as a condensation of social-media-informed modes of escapism/inspiration. There is no community, no real stakes, only a self-aware act of conspicuous consumption.

(Quick Note: Dana Schutz is a white female artist whose graphic depiction of violence against black bodies was included in the Whitney Biennale. This created a huge controversy last year. Read more here.)


CH: You told me about your desire to participate in a larger artist collective. Tell me more about that! What would this entail ideally? How has your knowledge of past collectives informed this decision? 

CW: Ideally it would entail utilizing technology at hand to create an engaging and accessible space of committed and regular collective creative practice. I’m talking rotating collaborations, conference presentations of ideas, and streamlined collective decision making. These goals could be achieved through first a smaller team of people that develop this space as an inaugural iteration of this. I am wanting an art government, essentially! One that erases borders that limited collectives of the past through open enrollment and collaborative spirit. In addition, I am seriously interested in the VR potential for exhibition “space” and making the production of the collective as public as possible.

In reality, a collective could exist just attempting to illustrate this ethereal realm i’ve dreamt up in the paragraph above.


CH: What are your thoughts on the Boston art scene?

CW: I am still exploring it, but do believe that it does not know how to incorporate the energy of young artists into a cohesive space with the galleries and museums here.  I do think art institutions are strong but almost entirely leashed to their percieved clientele (students, brahmins, etc) rather than to a specific goal or movement of art.

That said, I am particularly impressed by organization in the audiovisual scene and believe there is potential in a coming together of music, visual art, and tech-savvy creatives.  Boston holds back so many potential convergences, the social structure is made of countless interlocking bubbles and such social carbonation is disorienting and difficult to navigate.


CH: What are your thoughts on art at Tufts?

CW: There is certainly a great deal of potential in the hands of an administration that has very little track record in pushing for an integration of art on or for campus.  I find the estrangement between creative student organization and adequate resources to be a hurdle in need of overcoming before this potential may be accessed. 

I would say many things are special for what they are. Maker spaces like Crafts Center have been influential in my appreciation for collectivism in art; the museum school has yet to lose its radical energy for me in the wake of all the money suddenly coming its way.   I deeply cherish the flash collective I participated in with Avram Finkelstein in 2015 that resulted in the billboard on the Lower Campus Center lawn, despite it no longer existing.


CH: What’s next for art? Where do you see artistic trends going in the next few years?

CW: I see event based art organizing at critical mass: controversy in other creative arenas such as Fyre music festival and Noma Mexico luxury dining display a serious tone-deafness to global issues of disparity and neglect. In its wake all sorts of radical activity could take an unexpected center stage.  I would be very keen to see socially engaged art practices recieve more coverage and be more fully inducted into the canon of art as artists working in this way such as Pablo Helguera and Paul Ramirez Jonas are allowing people to feel welcome in the art world that may previously have been disenfranchised.  I am also for an art world that empowers and better documents performance artists and art of protest.

* * *

 Thank-you so much to Clayton Woolery for participating in Polykhroma Presents: Utopia/Dystopia and for sharing your ideas with me (both over tea and email!)

To my readers: I hope you enjoyed reading Woolery’s insights into art and its global significance. It was especially exciting for me to take part in this conversation after seeing his work live. Woolery will be exhibiting his work next spring in a thesis exhibition at the SMFA. In the meantime, check out his instagram to keep up with his work. And if you find yourself in the Boston area, keep a look out for exhibitions occurring through Polykhroma. There’s a good chance you’ll catch a performative piece by the hypnotic artist, Clayton Woolery.

Until next time!

xoxo,

Chloe ❤

Modern Art in Berlin Pt. 2 (Berlinische Galerie- Berlin, Germany)

Hi everyone! I hope you enjoyed my previous post about modern German art at the Berlinische Galerie. As explained in my previous post, there is simply too much to say about this collection/topic to do it in one post. And so, I am analyzing key works from the collection in four increments. You can read Part 1 here.

Part 1 discussed the Berlin Secession and the Pre-War years. Today I am going to discuss a little-known work painted during World War I: Stürzender Engel, by Benno Berneis (1914). There is so little information about Berneis, we will have to use only our eyes and knowledge of historical context to make sense of this eerie painting.

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At the outbreak of war in 1914, the artist Benno Berneis painted Stürzender Engel (Falling Angel).

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For such an extraordinary painting, very little is known about its painter. Benno Berneis (1883-1916) was a German Jewish painter who served as a pilot in the First World War. He died in service in 1916. According to journalist Von Nicola Kuhn, from the German newspaper Tagesspiegel, Berneis’ work was exhibited with that of Lieberman and Matisse before the War. He was poised to follow in the footsteps of his fellow German Expressionists. Unfortunately, his death cut short what was sure to be an incredible career. Now we are left with a smaller collection, albeit a beautiful one. You can look at his other works on his website, which is run by his grandson, Michael Berneis. I have been struggling to find much academic information on the artist (in German OR English). Please let me know if you come across anything!

And so, in lieu of any academic information, we shall have to use our eyes and knowledge of historical context to sort through Stürzender Engel. Take another look at this beautiful painting:

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What stands out to you? The loveliness of the pastel color palette? The illusion of roundness on the canvas surface? The obfuscation of the figure’s face? The curious nature of the figure itself? How about the tree bending sideways- does your mind attempt to find the source of wind contorting its thin branches?

My mind tries first and foremost to make sense of the space. It is (relatively) clear to me that the tree stands on some sort of green hilltop. The curving nature of the earth next to the tree resembles rolling hills. Additionally, the green pigment coloring the hill becomes less saturated as it approaches the bottom of the canvas. Pinks and browns are introduced, and are blended with larger, swirling brushstrokes. Not sure what I mean? Here’s a detailed look at this part of the canvas:

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Note how the inch above the canvas is a wash of different colors, blended into an ambiguous mist. It is only as the eye rises up the canvas a couple inches that the brushstrokes fall into place and one can make out the appearance of a grassy mound. What results from Berneis’ manipulation of color and texture is the sensation of mist rising, clouding one’s view and understanding of the hilltop’s appearance. My extremely limited experience hiking has taught me that there is quite a lot of mist and fog at higher elevations. Atop the highest mountain in Arcadia National Park, I could see only a few feet in front of me due tot he immense amounts of fog. And so, decreased color saturation and the decreasing specificity of brushstrokes lead me to believe that this painting is situated at a very high altitude… and the drop-off from here is incredibly steep.

What sorts of things do you associate with being at a very high altitude? I think of Heaven, spirituality, isolation, pilgrimages, extreme weather, Mt. Everest and all the people who have died trying to climb it, Cloud Forest in Ecuador and my sister’s incredible experience there, and getting altitude sickness at Yellowstone National Park when I was 15. What all these associations have in common is a sense of otherness of which we are in awe. We look to the highest points on earth with a sense of amazement– for the people and creatures who inhabit them, and for their unique (and often dangerous) climates. For some, the way of life atop Earth’s highest points is so foreign that it accumulates otherworldly associations. Mountains in the sky become religious symbols. It is this angle that Benno Bernis took in painting Stürzender Engel (Falling Angel). The title immediately indicates a religious, or at least supernatural, perspective.

Because of our location atop a misty hilltop, close to the heavens, we are poised to watch the angel’s fall from grace right at the moment of its happening. Take a closer look at her exit from the clouds:

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The angel’s body is still touching the voluminous clouds from which she falls. What are we to make of her descent? Firstly, she is nude. Perhaps her stark nudity symbolizes the loss of her wings; without them, she is naked. She covers her head and face, as if in shame. Berneis has actually emphasized the hiding of her face by blurring the outlines of her forearms and her head until what remains is a mass of pink and yellow over the remnants of dark brown. I have to wonder if this signifies Berneis’ chastising of the angels’ actions, or the angel’s own anguish at her fall from grace.

I think it also bears noting that this angel’s fall is more of a graceful descent. She is not plummeting out of the empty sky. In fact, the cloud from which she is released bears likeness to a human hand. Its three-dimensionality, achieved through careful shading and use of light, provide the form a firmness not characteristic of vaporous clouds. It feels thick and soft to the viewer’s eye, like a human hand. If we take this to be true, whose hand is it? The hand of God? The hand of Fate? It is a kind hand, who carefully releases the angel, newly wingless, into the world.

It follow, then, to ask what the angel has done to merit her expulsion from Heaven. Here is where context plays an important role in visual analysis. Given the context of the years preceding WWI which I detailed in my previous post, and the fact that WWI erupted in 1914, it is impossible to separate this painting from the world in which it was born.

Angels are beings believed to be messengers of God. They are women of extraordinary virtue and moral conduct. For one to be expelled from Heaven, she would need to act in an immoral manner. In 1914, what would qualify as such? Perhaps the angel represents Berneis’ homeland, Germany, and her fall from grace, Germany’s descent into violence. Or perhaps the angel is Europe, in which case Berneis’ criticism of violence would incriminate all of the countries involved in the conflict.

I also wonder if Stürzender Engel (Falling Angel) could be making commentary on the effect of war on spirituality. If angels are God’s messengers, could it be that an angel’s fall represents the death of God’s ties with the human race? Had people finally reached a violence so evil that He no longer wished to communicate with them through His messengers? If this is the case, it would explain the delicate way in which the Hand releases the angel. Her fall is not a plummet; the effect of being thrown in disgust from Heaven. Her fall is a gentle, reluctant push, enacted by a remorseful hand. It seems that Benno Berneis wondered if mankind had reached a low so low that God no longer wished to have contact with people. And so, the angels were dismissed.

* * *

I hope you enjoyed this analysis. It was exciting to dive headfirst into a work of art with no literature to bounce my ideas off of. This is a wonderful example of using visual analysis and historical context to understand a work of art. That is how accessible art is! All you need are your eyes. (And if you paid attention during history class, that is a tremendous plus…)

Until next time!

xoxo, Chloe ❤

Modern Art in Berlin Pt. 1 (Berlinische Galerie- Berlin, Germany)

Hi everyone! It’s been a while since I last wrote. I’ve been super busy with my intensive German language class. (Es ist fantastisch!) But I’ve been meaning to get back in the game. I never quite finished blogging about my Euro Trip, specifically the museums I visited in Berlin. I really enjoyed the Berlinische Galerie. This museum explores the history of art specifically within the city of Berlin. Rather than discussing one of the special exhibitions I’d like to talk about the permanent collection, and how it reflects the history of Berlin.

I initially planned to discuss the entire permanent collection in one post, but I got so excited writing about the first two paintings that my word count quickly became quite high. And so, I’ve decided instead to break this post into increments. Part 1 examines two works: a painting by Ludwig van Hoffman from 1900 and one by Ludwig Meidner from 1912. The two demonstrate changing conditions and artistic trends in Germany during this vital 12 year period.

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Until the late 19th century, German art predominantly followed the artistic trends occurring in other European nations. The German states witnessed their own Renaissance (as part of the larger Northern Renaissance), and subsequently experienced developments in the Baroque, Rococo, and Neo-classicism. Romanticism found its way to Germany at the same time that it did to England, manifesting itself in a movement with distinctly German character. Think of Caspar David Friedrich, whose Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog evokes the grandeur of the German landscape while shielding the identity of its protagonist. Though the work is filled with tension, it’s undertones of civic duty and grandeur as well as its cleanly licked surface remain academic in nature.

It wasn’t until 1892, when a group of German artists in Berlin chose to secede from artistic conservatism, that German art took on a life of its own. The Berlin Secession, as it came to be called, was more about separation from academic art (the art exhibited in salons across Europe) than it was about specific visual trends. The Berlin Secession encompassed artists who dabbled in pointillism, symbolism, art nouveau, and naturalism.

The following is a painting entitled Abendsonne (Evening Sun), painted in 1900 by Ludwig van Hoffman.

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Note the softness in the brushstrokes that dot Abendsonne. Compare these to the smooth, almost invisible brushstrokes in Wanderer. Furthermore, note the figures’ state of undress. In classical academic painting, nudes are typically Venus figures or nymphs. In religious societies (such as the German States), these nude figures were not seen as German women. They were characters removed from the realities of human flesh and interpersonal interaction. Thus, their nudity was no threat to German morals and values, such as religion, chastity, and female modesty. In Abendsonne, van Hoffman has removed the Greek imagery associated with the acceptable female nude, and left in its place the realities of the naked woman. This unraveling of the myth of the female nude occurred in France several decades earlier. It is exciting to watch it be staged on the German canvas in 1900.

However, though the female figures in Abendsonne resemble actual German women bathing, they have still been awarded a decent degree of modesty. The two entirely naked figures are so far away in the middle-ground that the viewer cannot consume the specifics of their gender. They are also positioned so as to hide the most obvious aspects of their gender. The figure in the foreground holds a wad of fabric around her body as she walks to the water to join the other women. The positioning of this fabric is tantalizing to the viewer. Note the tiny brushstroke between her arm and her chest that indicates the slightest shadow on the side of her left breast. The shadows across her neck and sternum draw the viewer’s eye down her body until it stops, frustratingly, at the obfuscating folds of fabric.

Skin is not the only tantalizing aspect of Abendsonne. The play of light is as delicate and sensual as the shadows dancing across the figure’s skin. Notice how the flecks of yellow brushstrokes seem to rest daintily atop a path of green grass, or the length of a tree-branch. It is as if van Hoffman’s paintbrush were a finger grazing skin ever-so-lightly, leaving behind a bit of light with its touch. The lemony-yellow color of the light- the color of the evening sun- is sensual in nature and in its connotations. Soon the yellow will turn to darkness, and we will lose all view of the naked women. This is our last moment to view them, and to consume them.

* * *

The second painting I’d like to examine is a work from Ludwig Meidner’s “Apocalyptic Paintings” series, which he began in 1912 and completed just before the outbreak of the First World War. 12 years had past since van Hoffman painted the sensual Abendsonne. Life in Berlin had changed, and this was reflected in the work of the city’s artists. Take a look at this Apocalyptic Painting before reading more about the painting’s context.

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In 1882, Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy signed the Triple Alliance in order to ensure European allies during their personal quests for land acquisition. Additionally, Germany had only been officially unified as a nation-state in 1871. It was eager to solidify its place on the map of Europe with strong allies- specifically ethnically related allies.

In 1894, the Franco-Russian Alliance was signed in response to the Triple Alliance. It signaled the deterioration of both Franco-German and Russo-German relations. Further alliances were formed as the 20th century plodded forward, indicating growing animosity between Germany and the rest of Europe. The Franco-Italian Agreement in 1902, the Entente Cordial in 1904, the Anglo-Russian Agreement in 1907, The Russo-Italian Agreement in 1909, and the Anglo-French Naval Agreement in 1912 gradually tied together all of Germany’s enemies. This made the Germans very uneasy. The forging of military alliances kept everyone on their toes– the possibility of violence was on the horizon.

Other factors contributed to the strengthening of political and military divides in Europe.  The first Moroccan Crisis (1905) involved the German Kaiser intervening in North Africa to declare his support for the Sultan of newly-independent Morocco. This move was intended to drive a wedge between France and England, whose colonial disputes had a long, long history, but instead brought the two countries together AGAINST GERMANY.

A second Moroccan Crisis, as well as the involvement of the Great Powers in the Balkan Wars, deepened animosity between nation-states.

AND SO, now that you have an understanding of the political situation in Germany between the painting of Abendsonne and Apocalyptic Painting, are you surprised at the differences between the two?

Here is Apocalyptic Painting once more:

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Note the darker color palette. The sky is filled with blacks, greys, and dark blues. The people are a wash of black and maroon clothing. The yellow hills are tinged with a putrid shade of green and a corrosive black to indicate shadows- and perhaps evil itself.

The brushstrokes are much thicker as well. Take a look at this detail that demonstrates the three-dimensional quality of Meidner’s brushstrokes:

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Thicker brushstrokes make it more difficult for the artist to render realistic-looking faces. However, their capacity for emotional expressivity is greater. Globs of paint mottle the countryside, allowing its destruction to be rendered more emotionally than realistically. Instead of a naturalist interpretation of what a field ablaze looks like, Meidner’s painting presents the sensation of one’s home being destroyed. Thick wads of paint render the landscape more and more unrecognizable until it takes on a creepy, garish character of its own. A yellow hill one used to sit on in summertime now looks evil due to its sickly green overtones and sharpened outline.

Thick brushstrokes also allow Meidner to simplify human expression, leaving behind the purest of human emotion while eliminating the anecdotal detail of individuality. Note the two women at the foreground of this detail. The woman on the right has been pared down to her wide eyes and outstretched hands. These two glowing orbs on the front of her face embody the essence of fear. Her hands, clutching each other and stretched in front of her face, reflect man’s last human protective instinct. As if putting her hands in front of her could possibly protect her from what is to come.

Lastly, I’d like to spend some time on Meidner’s attention to space. How is the landscape’s sense of perspective constructed? No plane stands entirely horizontally. The foreground, middle ground, and background blend into one another due to Meidner’s use of curving, diagonal, and intersecting lines. These lines disrupt the viewer’s attempt to separate what is near from what is far. They ignore the rules of physics, swooping from the top of a mountain to a crowd of huddled figures in the span of two inches. Because the surface of the painting is uneven for its own inhabitants, the viewer’s experience of Apocalyptic Painting is equally vertigo-inducing.

The destruction of perspective contributes directly to the painting’s sense of chaos. There is nothing more terrifying than one’s trusted sense of the universe being upended. In Apocalyptic Painting, the end of the world is symbolized by the literal implosion of the earth.

And so, what are we to make of the fact that Meidner painted Apocalyptic Painting BEFORE World War I? He would later explain that he had the gift of foresight, but I would argue that he had the gift of observation. He recognized the tensions rising in Germany due to external political and military conditions. He understood the implications of these conditions and their likely culmination in war.

…But I think there’s more. In Apocalyptic Painting, the world is not simply coming to an end. The ground beneath the people’s feet is caving in. This suggests an internal collapse rather than an external bombardment. It makes the apocalypse personal, even implying oneself in the fact of its existence. Perhaps Meidner had not only the gift of observation, but the (truly rare) gift of self-criticism. Could he have looked objectively at Germany’s growth since 1871, its political and military decisions, rapid industrialization, and the discomfort of its people, and wondered if Germany itself would play a role in its own downfall?

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What do you think about the vast differences between Abendsonne and Apocalyptic Painting? How much of their differences do you attribute to personal style and how much to changing political and military conditions in Europe? Can you even separate personal style FROM the artist’s context? (That question keeps me up at night). Let me know! And keep an eye out for the next post about the Berlinische Galerie. I’ll be highlighting works painted during the Great War.

Additionally, I am very curious about Ludwig van Hoffman and how his art may or may not have developed in the 20th century. I will likely head to the Met Library soon to do some research. Let me know if you have any books or articles about him you recommend.

Until next time!

xoxo,

Chloe ❤

Pipliotti Rist: Pixel Forest (The New Museum- NYC)

Hi everyone! 

If you’ve been on social media recently, you’ve likely seen a picture from the Pipliotti Rist retrospective at the New Museum. This exhibition has garnered tremendous attention- in part because of how incredible the exhibit is, and also due to its nature as a major spectacle. Like Yayoi Kusama’s “Give Me Love” and Kara Walker’s “A Subtlety, “Pipliotti Rist: Pixel Forest” attracts the instagrammers and the travelers, all eager to document their artistic adventures. Though these exhibits differ in subject matter and medium, they share an infectious aspect of spectacle. Visitors were eager to snap a picture of themselves covered in colorful polka-dots in the “Give Me Love” exhibition space. Just take a look at my icon on your left! Visitors of A Subtlety were just as taken with the spectacle of the massive Sugar Sphinx. The photo-snapping of white visitors angered many, creating a controversy about the role of the viewer that you can read about here. Evidently, the rapid proliferation of ‘spectacle art,’ as I’ll call it, has led many to question the usefulness of these exhibitions. Are these shows ‘selling out?’ in an attempt to attract viewers? Or are viewers polluting exhibits with their smartphones, diminishing the quality of the museum/gallery experience for other viewers?

The reason I bring up this controversy in a review of Rist’s retrospective is that Pixel Forest confronts this controversy head-on. Not only is Pixel Forest a spectacle; it is a commentary on spectacle. Rist achieves this dual effect through a variety of means including size, use of unconventional art-making materials, and visitor participation. In this post, I will talk about how Rist uses these tools to create a spectacle for the viewer and to simultaneously ask the viewer to contemplate the usefulness of spectacle.

Additionally, I’ll talk about some of the other themes featured in Rist’s work through the years, such as voyeurship of the human body, the relationship between the human body and nature, and the deconstruction of femininity. 

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The exhibition begins on the second floor. I took the stairs rather than the elevator, so the first work I encountered was Pickelmporno (Pimple Porno), (1992). Pickelporno is a video installation projected onto the wall in one of the side niches of the second floor. Take a look at a few of the snapshots I took of this rapidly moving video piece:

You can also watch the 10 minute video here. 

It has been shot- or cut in post-production- into an irregular parallelogram, which immediately creates a sense of unbalance for the viewer. It is difficult to get our footing in relation to Pickelporno. If we want to look at the video head-on, must we turn our heads to the right to make our eyes parallel to the slanting bottom line? Rist invites us to manipulate the position of our bodies in order to consume her work. This is an example of audience participation being used to engage viewers in a work and create spectacle.

The content of Pickelporno is fascinating. The camera skims the surface of the human body, taking in the tiniest details of human skin and hair with a sharply focused lens. We see the thinnest of lines and grooves in the palm and foot of an unnamed person. Hands tug at short black hair and we follow this movement, gazing at a mass of oily strands from root to tip. The close contact with this person initiated by the camera turns the viewer- no matter how innocent he may feel!- into a voyeur. By watching Pickelporno, the viewer inhabits the space of the lens, wandering over a body and consuming every detail. Now, depending on the personality of the viewer, this could make a person feel a number of different ways. Embarrassed perhaps, or maybe guilty. Another could feel amazed by the the intricacies of the human form, or even titillated by it.

The transitive process of the viewer stepping into the role of camera man is fascinating in and of itself, but Rist doesn’t stop there. She juxtaposes these shots of hair and skin with images of leaves, oranges, sunflowers, lava, jellyfish and the moon. These motifs are examples of entities found in nature (and outer space). The presence of these objects next to the human being consumed suggests a similarity between the human form and the natural world. Seen from up close, the skin of an orange is not so different from the skin of  a person. Thus, Pickelporno achieves a commentary on both voyeurship and the place of the human within the greater earth.

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In the center of the second floor are two screens at a right angle from one another. Projected on these screens are two videos that play one after the other: Sip My Ocean (1996) and Ever is Over All (1997). Below are two screen grabs of Sip My Ocean.

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You can also watch the entire 5 minute video here. 

Sip My Ocean features similar imagery to that of Pickelporno. The camera hovers over the human form, often zooming in on parts of the body, as shown in the image of pursed lips. These images are also juxtaposed with views of nature, namely, pixelated underwater views. The luscious underwater world is a playground of colorful shapes that bend and morph into otherworldly forms. Early video technology allowed Rist to manipulate the underwater footage, creating a sublime wonderland of bright colors and pixelated shapes that are in constant flux. This spectacular, real-yet-not-real setting is the space within which a bikini-clad woman swims. She is the focus of Sip My Ocean, even though stretches of time pass in which she is absent from the screen. She appears now and then between the waves. We are shown tantalizing views of her from all angles. The camera slides up her body slowly at times, focusing on her bouncing breasts. She is caressed by the camera, by the waves, and by us. All the while a haunting recording plays. She sings, “I never dreamed that I’d love someone like you/No I don’t want to fall in love.” This repeats for about 3 minutes, when she begins to scream over the song. She shrieks these words while the underwater landscape continues to grow and dissolve, glimmers of her body flashing across the screen and twisting upside down before disappearing altogether. It is as if she is drowning. Or perhaps the camera has taken ahold of her and is yanking her through the dimensions of this underwater world.

What is the message of Sip My Ocean? My major takeaway was that the protagonist- who is Rist herself- has little control for much of the video. The camera- and transitively, us- are voyeurs of her sublime body within a sublime world. Yet she struggles to gain control and assert herself, at the expense of the beauty around her. The more she shrieks, the more she disrupts the eerie landscape beneath her. It warps more and more quickly, fragments of waves and unnatural amoebas disintigrating as the voice rises in pitch. To me, Sip My Ocean is a representation of female struggle and female power, and a confrontation of the aestheticism linked to femininity. What happens when women fight this association- and refuse to fall in love? It dissolves around them into pixels of dust.

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Here is a sequence of four screen grabs from Ever is Over All (1997).

You can also watch the whole 2-3 minute video here.

In Ever is Over All, two sets of footage play on either side of the screen. On the viewer’s left, the female protagonist wears a blue sundress and red heels. Her hair is done in a neat up-do. She grins and saunters down the street carrying a long green object with a yellow and red oval top. As she walks, she swings the object back and forth in her hands until she reaches a car window. Then she smashes the object into the window, shattering the glass. She continues down the street, still grinning wildly. At one point a female officer passes her and salutes her. 

Meanwhile, on the viewer’s right, the camera zooms up and down the stalks of flowers in a meadow. These flowers have long green stems with textured yellow and red petals. They mirror the shape and colors of the object the protagonist uses as a weapon. The flower footage adopts the meandering ‘gaze’ that characterizes the camerawork in both Sip My Ocean and Pickelporno. We are made to feel like we are consuming the flowers as we trace our eyes slowly up and down them, moving closer towards them and flipping upside down to devour them from every angle. 

Flowers have an association with femininity, which the protagonist enhances with her sundress, heeled shoes and fancy hairdo. It is uncomfortable to see this beautiful woman wreck havoc on the street while wearing such a traditionally feminine outfit, surrounded by feminine symbols. Rist wants us to feel uncomfortable. In doing so, we are forced to ask ourselves what specifically is making us feel this way. A feminine-looking woman acting in an un-feminine way is initially startling and makes us confused- why is she acting this way? Rist responds, “Why would she not? Who says she has to act one way or another?” 

I assume, then, that Ever is Over All is meant to challenge traditionally ideas of feminine behavior, and the usefulness of the notion of femininity at all. Furthermore, the protagonist uses a weapon that is colored and shaped like a flower, but has the solidity and power to destroy a car (a typically masculine object). It follows that Ever is Over All is also a testament to female strength. Her strength is doubted because of her femininity- after all, the symbol attributed to her is the flower. And yet it is precisely a flower secretly made of metal that triumphs over the traditional symbol of maleness, the car.

The presence of the female officer saluting her introduces a female figure in a traditionally male role, further unraveling the viewer’s preconceived notions of femininity. 

* * *

To the right of the screens projecting Sip My Ocean and Ever is Over All is a series of white sheets hanging from the ceiling. Projected on them is another video. This installation piece is entitled Administrating Eternity (2011). Here is a photograph of one of these projections: 

 

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If one were to pass in front of this projection, the pink and yellow sheep would become projected onto his or her skin. Thus, in walking through Administrating Emily, the viewer becomes part of the work.  Administrating Emily’s space depends on the viewers’ movements. Our bodies are additional screens, and our movements are perpetually constructing the work in new directions and manners. A man briskly walking between the sheets jostles them, making the images shake while 20 different colors illuminate his skin in quick succession. A woman standing  still before a sheet becomes a three-dimensional screen, her silhouette grey against the sheet, but the projection bright upon her back. The amorphous space of Administrating Emily is in constant flux because of variation in human behavior.

The importance of audience participation in Administrating Emily is part of what makes it such a fascinating spectacle. People enjoy the fact that their presence influences a work of art. The importance of human behavior in determining the space of the work points to the importance of the individual in the collective experience, and the relationship between man and the world. 

* * *

The third floor is perhaps the most photographed (certainly the most instagrammed) of the exhibition. When one enters the space, this is what he sees:

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It is the titular work of the exhibition, “Pipliotti Rist: Pixel Forest” (2016). Here are several other pictures.

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As you can see, Pixel Forest is always changing colors. It is composed of 3000 lights, each of which is one LED pixel that has been immersed in a polyurethane sculpture. As the viewer walks around, he is surrounded by whatever color the pixels are radiating at that moment. For a few seconds, the entire room is bathed in pink. Then the pink intensifies and turns red. Red gives way to a sensual purple, a bright blue, a vivid green. The colors of the pixels change in conjunction with the video being projected onto a screen behind the forest. I understood Pixel Forest as behaving in conjunction with these videos.  

Worry Will Vanish (2014) and “Mercy Garden” (2014) alternate on the screen. You can watch an excerpt of Worry Will Vanish here. You can watch an excerpt of Mercy Garden here. Below are a series of stills from both videos: 

The two videos continue Rist’s theme of combining close up, voyeuristic images of the human body with high-res nature footage. Digital technology has removed the pixelated quality so present in Pickelporno and perfected the fluid overlay techniques begun in Sip My Ocean. In one beautiful moment, the silhouette of a tree sprouts from the neck of a man. In another, a vivid red canyon can be seen from between the petals of green leaves. 

Large pillows are provided for viewers to sit down and gaze up at the colorful footage on the walls. When I sat down, it felt as if I had just journeyed through a forest and had landed in a small clearing. In this way the entire space on the third floor mirrors a series of spaces in the natural world, and the process of moving through them. 

Without a doubt, Pixel Forest constitutes a spectacle. It fulfills the basic criteria I outlined before: size, audience participation, and the use of unconventional art-making materials. The forest is vast- it takes up one third to one half of the entire third floor, stretching from floor to ceiling. Viewers are welcomed into the space and encouraged to participate by weaving their way through the strands of light, and making their way to the clearing to sit down. The use of LED lights in an artwork is unusual for the average museum-goer who may not study contemporary art. Even if he has seen art that incorporates light, he likely has not seen it at such a great scale. The result of all this spectacle is a sensation of awe. When I walked I walked through Pixel Forest, I wondered if this was how pilgrims felt when they walked into gothic cathedrals reflecting multicolored light through stained glass windows. There is something heavenly about a space flooded with light. It evokes sacredness, the supernatural, and the celestial realm. While not a religious work, the spectacular nature of Pixel Forest filled me with an overwhelming sense of the sublime. And so, Rist’s spectacle serves more purpose than to simply shock. 

“Is spectacle useful?” the cynic may ask. Rist’s response speaks volumes: a spectacle that can aid the viewer in transcending this world. 

* * *

On the fourth floor, Rist instructs the viewer to lie down on a series of beds and look up at a video installation distending from the ceiling. Fourth Floor to Mildness (2016) is projected on two large screens. You can watch a short clip here. As you can see, the work continues Rist’s exploration of nature from different angles and perspectives. Below are several stills from the space, demonstrating the space between the beds and the screens as well as the shape of the screens. 

Fourth Floor to Mildness is a site-specific installation created for this exhibition. And so, it took the architecture of the New Museum into consideration. The two large screens fill the ceiling space in the center section of the fourth floor. The result is a sense of organic unity; it does not feel as if anything else could fit in the space, or that anything should be removed. 

The presence of the screens on the ceiling reverses the way in which we usually consume images. On the second and third floors we were asked to consume videos on the walls. There were also several videos projected onto the floor and through other unconventional means. The shift of the screen to the ceiling signals the final metamorphosis of image consumption. We are lying down, finally at complete and total rest. 

Additionally, Rist confronts the dichotomy between individual and collective consumption through the inclusion of large beds. This forces strangers to lie down together, breaking down social barriers about the normative ways in which we consume images. The smart phone is individual. The movie theatre is collective, though we sit in individual seats. Fourth Floor to Mildness is collective. If you want to consume, you must first take off your shoes- another socially inappropriate behavior- and lie down next to total strangers. 

The fourth floor is meant to be a culmination of the spectacle as a whole. It is vast, incorporates the audience in its representation and meaning, and questions social norms in a way that excites the viewer. I personally prefer Pixel Forest and its relationship to Worry Will Vanish and Mercy Garden in terms of spectacle and the usefulness of spectacle, but it is important to comprehend the exhibition as a whole. As the viewer makes his way through the different floors, he is asked to alter his body in relation to each work until he is lying flat on his back. I thought this was a fascinating curatorial choice, and was the most memorable part of Fourth Floor to Mildness for me. 

* * *

I hope you’ve enjoyed reading about the different works in “Pipliotti Rist: Pixel Forest.” I have often thought about the construction and usefulness of spectacle, and was happy to encounter an exhibit that I believe facilitates the understanding of both. I also hope that you come away from this post thinking about Rist’s main themes: voyeurship of the human body, the relationship between the human body and nature, and the deconstruction of femininity. These are topics that are relevant in our own lives, and issues that we can tackle both with and without art (though I prefer the former method).

One last thing I wanted to discuss is the abundance of documentation that I noticed in this exhibit. I went with a good friend and I believe we spent a good 20 minutes complaining about the people standing in Pixel Forest taking pictures of themselves. The sheer volume of people standing and snapping pictures made it extremely difficult for us to take a step in any direction. While I did manage to feel a sense of transcendence, it was not before jostling my way to the edge of the room, where there were less people with selfie sticks. We eventually spoke to a tour guide about this, and suggested there be an hour a day when cameras aren’t allowed in the New Museum. He brought up something we hadn’t thought about: Pipliotti Rist could actually be happy with the proliferation of screens in her exhibit. The whole show presented images in different shapes, on new surfaces, at unconventional angles. Administrating Emily was constructed on the idea that new bodies would forever create new screens, giving the work an amorphous, ever-changing, shape. Perhaps the millions of selfies taken per day in Pixel Forest were an extension of the work itself. Maybe the work is as big as our entire earth- or as far as a selfie bathed in pink light can travel. What do you think?

In the meantime, I very hypocritically still ask that you limit the amount of pictures you take per room to 5 (gasp) or you might find an elbow in your side.

Until next time!

xoxo, Chloe ❤ 

 

Pierre Chareau: Modern Architecture and Design (The Jewish Museum- NYC)

Hi everyone! I hope you all had delicious Thanksgiving weekends. I ate a full plate of stuffing at 3 o’clock this morning so that’s where I’m currently at. But I’ve also had a really fun weekend of museum-hopping. It’s been a very busy semester (thesis! teaching a class! curating collective!) so I haven’t been able to go to many museums this fall. Having a couple days off gave me time to re-immerse myself in the art world. One of my favorite exhibits that I saw was the Pierre Chareau exhibit at the Jewish Museum.

Pierre Chareau was a prominent French interior and furniture designer in the years between the world wars. His elite and influential patrons commissioned him to design their homes because they were drawn to his innovative designs. He mixed high-end and low-end materials to create striking spaces. His approach to space was marked by an attention to openness; he was forever searching for ways in which material could, paradoxically, make a room feel lighter and wider.

Pierre Chareau: Modern Architecture and Design is fabulous not just for its fascinating subject. The curation of the exhibit embodies Chareau’s principles of design, and allows the viewer to experience interior design, rather than stare at it. Esther da Costa Meyer, professor of architectural history at Princeton University, worked closely with architects Diller Scofidio and Renfro to curate this exhibit. Chareau’s innovative designs set the bar high for curators to display his work, and this curatorial team rises to the occasion.

* * *

The first category that the exhibit encounters is furniture. Several different tableaus feature innovative pieces. This one in particular stood out to me. The table can be swung back underneath the semicircular shelf when it is not in use. I found this to be very efficient. However, the form here does more than follow function. The sleek blend of the bookshelf mirrors the slight curve to the bench, and the roundness of the table. Curving lines make the efficiency of this arrangement feel incidental- I noticed the rich wood and sleek design before I processed its innovativeness.

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White screens separate the tableaus from one another. Projected on these white screens are moving silhouettes of people living and working in Chareau’s spaces. They sit on his chairs and rise from them, hanging their coats on his coat racks and bending over his desks. Here are some stills from these projections:

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And here is a contextual view of my father admiring a tableau of furniture with the shadows of moving bodies projected on nearby screens. (Note the yellowish triangular formation on top of the stacking desk- that’s made from alabaster)

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What I really appreciate about these projections is that they allow the viewer to imagine the furniture in use. While paintings (after the medieval period) serve mainly as decoration, furniture exists to be used. Sometimes I have difficulty enjoying a furniture exhibit if the works are simply placed on a platform and admired. I want to get a sense of what it felt like for someone to sit in a chair- did it make them sit up straight? Did they recline? How did the upholstery feel under their arms? The artist takes all these sensations into consideration in his design, and if we don’t consider them, then how can we truly understand their art? Of course, we can’t sit down on Louis XIV’s bed, but we can sit on a  replica. We can watch the human body relax or stiffen in a digital recreation. Here, we watch shadows of real people interact with the furniture in front of us. It allows us to transitively absorb the sensations of interacting with this furniture, and experience it more fully.

* * *

The second section of the exhibit I’d like to examine is Chareau’s personal art collection. I think that looking at an artist’s inspirations can really inform one’s understanding of the artist’s work. After all, the images that I choose to surround myself with inevitably find their way into my thoughts, my art, and my writing. Chareau had quite the art collection- here are some standouts!

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Many of these works feature a strong emphasis on line. The Mondrian in the top left corner plays with color blocking and straight lines. The works beside it introduce bent and curving lines, and the relationship between the two. The work on the far right seems to be composed almost entirely of lines- all of differing widths and lengths.

I particularly like this work, Max Ernst’s The Interior of Sight (1922). It isn’t hard to imagine this uncanny still life inside one of Chareau’s interiors. Its self-conscious perspective is both a celebration and mockery of traditional means of representing space.

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I really enjoyed how the Jewish Museum embodied Chareau’s notion of expanding space through materiality. In the following picture, you can see how a glass display of Chareau’s collaborations with other artists and designers extends through two gallery rooms. The wall separating the two rooms abruptly ends about six inches above the display table. Look closely- you can see through to the other room, where a person in red and two people in black are looking at the display case from the other room. The cut-out in the wall creates a dynamic flow between the spaces, and creates a feeling of airiness.

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* * *

I’ll now turn to the section of Pierre Chareau: Modern Architecture and Design that is devoted to interior design. The first thing the viewer sees when he walks into this area is a large white cube within the gallery space. The cube has cut-outs a few inches below eye-level in which photographs of Chareau’s interiors are displayed.

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One circumnavigates the giant cube, following the trail of photographs. This was one of my favorites:

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The interior is the dining room of the Grand Hôtel de Tours in 1927. Notice how the ceiling is never flush with the walls. There are multiple platforms extending from the ceiling, connecting to pillars and making contact with each other. I enjoy how this treatment of wall and ceiling adds visual interest to the space without making it feel cramped. Perhaps the cut-out in the wall on the viewer’s right compensates for the thick pillar and busy ceiling design. 

After walking around the large cube, one walks through a slight opening on one of its sides into a virtual reality wonderland. There are four stools and four virtual reality glasses situated at the four cardinal points. When you sit down and puts on these glasses, you are immediately transported to one of Chareau’s interiors. Here I am immersed in one of these rooms.

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I explored every single one, tilting my head up to see the ceiling, and down to see the chair that I was sitting on. All around me, steel and wood mixed to create a visually arresting space. In one of my favorite interiors, a steel bookcase took up the entirety of a two-story wall. A diagonal steel ladder allowed its inhabitants to reach all of the shelves while perching precariously in mid-air. The ground floor was wooden, and featured innovative furniture like the table and bookshelf set examined in the first section. The incorporation of virtual reality into this exhibition allowed me to imagine myself moving through one of Chareau’s spaces, while the photographs showed me real snapshots of what these spaces looked like almost a hundred years ago. The exhibit works so well because it includes both forms of representation.

* * *

In the last room, there is a screen that moves forward and backwards, projecting a changing image. Maison de Verre (The Glass House), is the subject of this projection. The house was designed by Chareau in 1932 and built in Paris. It is wedged between other buildings and actually cannot be seen from the street. It is an architectural marvel. Made from glass, steel, and glass brick, Maison de Verre makes no effort to cover up its structural elements; they are an essential part of the decorative scheme. As the viewer watches the screen move, the projection drifts through the house, from the outside to the inside, following the steel beams as they protrude through different rooms and stretch down to different levels. Here are some stills of the projection in motion:

Every once in a while the screen and the projection pause. A section of the building is colored in red. Then, a separate projection shows up on the side of the room, showing a close-up view of someone interacting with that highlighted part of the building.

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The exhibit is constantly contextualizing itself, allowing the visitor to feel every single space that is introduced, either by becoming a body within the space, or watching another body move within it.

That was my main takeaway from Pierre Chareua: Modern Architecture and Design. I was utterly fascinated by Chareau’s shifting, open spaces, and his juxtaposition of steel, wood, and more precious materials. Yet the way the exhibit was designed truly took my breath away. I just finished reading “Eleven Museums, Eleven Museum Directors,” by Michael Shapiro, and one of the major themes discussed in the book is the role of the museum. Many of these American directors agree that their main concern is serving the public. How can they make the museum accessible to people? How does the museum fit within the fabric of the city? The Jewish Museum is constantly asking these questions, and coming up with new and exciting answers. Here, the curatorial team took a selection of photographs and a collection of furniture that visitors are obviously not allowed to sit on, but managed to make the exhibit extremely immersive.  I came away with a much deeper appreciation for and understanding of Pierre Chareau’s work.

The Jewish Museum is at the forefront of innovative and thrilling exhibition design. Please make your way over to the Jewish Museum to see this incredible show. You have until March 26th!

Until next time-

xoxo,

Chloe ❤

 

 

The Demise of Abraham Reiss (National Holocaust Museum- Amsterdam)

Well, it finally happened. My four months in Amsterdam came to a close (with a few tears, and a whole lot of gruyere). I may be back in the Big Apple, but I’m not ready to let go of my blissful semester abroad just yet- partially because I am in denial and partially because I still have a few posts queue’d up! My last couple weeks in Amsterdam were spent scurrying from museum to gallery to museum and back again, as I feverishly attempted to cross everything off my bucket list.

One museum I am extremely glad I visited was the National Holocaust Museum. Amsterdam has several institutions dedicated to the Jewish experience in the Netherlands. I visited the  Jewish Historical Museum, the Portuguese Synagogue, the Holocaust Memorial, the Dutch Resistance Museum, and the Ann Frank House all before the National Holocaust Museum opened in May. Despite the abundance of Jewish institutions in Amsterdam, the National Holocaust Museum feels extremely prudent, and fulfills an important niche in Amsterdam’s Jewish Quarter. It uses both history and art to weave together an emotional history of the Holocaust in the Netherlands.

The exhibit currently on display is The Demise of Abraham Reiss, by Jeroen Krabbé. In this exhibition, Holocaust survivor Krabbé imagines the life of his Grandfather in a series of nine multi-media works. Krabbé’s grandfather, Abraham, unfortunately did not survive the Holocaust, and was brutally murdered in Sobibor. This series of works is accompanied by a documentary in which Krabbé himself discusses his artistic choices. I will reference his ideas as well as my own in the following analysis.

The first work is entitled, Spanderswoud, 1904. It depicts Abraham at his prime, a successful diamond cleaver and lover of leisure. Here, he is perched in the grass in the woods, where he likely arrived on his Raleigh bike.

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Notice how the the landscape is heavily decorated with both paint and sand. Not a spot of grass or tree is left unpainted. And yet, Abraham himself is sketched in charcoal. It seems as if the slightest brush of a hand could wipe away the marks that represent him. He looks out at us, the viewers, with an unreadable expression. His body, though at rest, seems oddly stiff, as if he is posing for a photograph he did not want taken. Note the one white tree at the viewer’s right. This tree will become important later.

* * *

The second work, Ostend, 1929, depicts a seaside scene. Here, Abraham strolls down the beach while on holiday in Ostend.

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He does not know that it is his last holiday there. At this time, he can afford expensive suits and vacations, but his investments in American Stock are about to bankrupt him. Krabbé illustrates this sense of foreboding through several visual techniques. Note the way Abraham’s shadow is swallowed up by the surf. Murky blue and green water grab hold of Abraham’s yellow shadow and disfigure it, blending it into the foamy sand. Abraham saunters on, blissfully unaware of what is right next to him. Krabbé also indicates the coming troubles with the rainclouds at the top left. Here is a detail of the storm:

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Note how Krabbé uses overlapping vertical and horizontal lines- a technique called cross-hatching- to create a sense of gusting winds. These cross-hatching lines descend into the water, blurring the line between sea and sky. The water, too, looks hazardous, gradually surging towards the coastline.

Abraham’s black and white form is once more drawn with charcoal, while the rest of the painting is covered in thick brushstrokes and dotted with grains of sand. This isolates him, especially in relation to his family, who are clumped together in the middle of the painting. They are difficult to discern because Krabbé has barely colored them in. They remain white on a beige beach. Perhaps Krabbé meant to foreshadow Abraham’s isolation from his family. Or, the proximity of the wife and daughters to the impending storm symbolizes the catastrophic effect of the stock market crash on the Reiss family. Just how catastrophic this was, is revealed in the coming pictures.

Krabbé also notes that he included a stairway at the top right of the beach. He calls this stairway an ‘escape.’ The addition of an ‘escape’ is poignant because the viewer is aware that Abraham was unable to utilize it.

* * *

The third work, April 24 1942, Jekkerstraat 14-3, was painted from an actual photograph of Abraham, his wife, and his two daughters.

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After the stock market crash in 1929, Abraham lost all of the money he made in the diamond business. His family was forced to move from their luxurious home to a smaller one on Jekkerstraat. This would prove to be fatal for the Reiss family, because they did not have the money to go into hiding once the Nazis started deporting Jews. Abraham’s wife suffered from diabetes, and actually died the day after this photograph was taken. She may not have died in a death camp, but Abraham often said that it was the Nazis who killed her. She died after reading a newspaper headline that stated all Jews were to wear an identifying yellow star. Abraham kept this newspaper, and intended to use it as evidence after the War that the Nazis had killed his wife.

In Krabbé’s painting, imagery plays a vital role. Once more, Abraham is a charcoal ghost, while his family members and the room itself are thickly painted. The room is half a room and half a forest. On the viewer’s left, the room is filled with trees. Do these trees look familiar? Refer back to the first painting, Spanderswoud, 1904, and note how the singular white tree in that painting has multiplied in this work. Furthermore, hints of red have covered its white bark. Then, on the right side of the room, we see decorative wallpaper surrounding a door. The black door leads to a room so red it is quite literally on fire. Everywhere the Reiss family turns, their life is transforming: into fire, into forest, into death.

Perhaps the most haunting details are the whispers of silver sand across the surface of the painting. Take a look:

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The breezes of grey dust cover Abraham, his wife, and only one of the daughters. One daughter- the mother of Krabbé, who survived the Holocaust- is left untouched. We can see, then, that these ‘whispers,’ as Krabbé calls them, signify the inevitability of death descending upon them.

* * *

This is Westerbork, 20 June 1943, the fourth work in Krabbé’s series. It depicts Abraham when he arrives in the Dutch labor camp.

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His charcoal form stands out in the center of this yellow canvas. He still wears his woolen coat and hat, and clutches his bag with one gloved hand. Here, sand, field and sky are one. Swirling yellow sand covers the canvas both figuratively and literally, as sand is a material used in all nine works. The effect is claustrophobic, just as the camp would have been to its inmates. A row of soldiers lines the right side of the canvas. In the far back on the viewer’s left there are tiny figures toiling in the field. They, too, are unpainted, concocted from charcoal and negative space. Their identities are slipping away, much like their representation on canvas.

This was a very heart-wrenching painting to look at. I find the way Abraham clutches his bag to be especially upsetting. The contents of his bag are the last items he brought from home. He probably carries old photographs and family heirlooms. Upon deportation, Jews were told to bring with them only a small bag. Of course, all their possessions would be taken from them, but instructing them to bring a bag created an illusion of safety. If they were allowed to bring their possessions, how bad could their destination be? This psychological deceit I find particularly nauseating. For this reason, I find Westerbork, 20 June 1943 to be one of the most poignant, most emotionally stirring paintings in the series.

* * *

Westerbork, 6 July 1943 takes place several days after the previous work. In this painting, we see Abraham being sent by rail to the next, unknown location. This location would be Sobibor.

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The ‘whispers’ we saw in April 24 1942, Jekkerstraat 14-3 are even more prevalent here. Krabbé has coated the surface of the painting with a tremendous amount of black, grey, and white flecks. As you can see in the following detail, these specks disfigure the faces of the travelers, rendering them identity-less. The man in this detail looks like a mass of yellow paint with black splattered all over. One cannot discern his eyes from the whispers of death. As the whispers become more prominent, and the identities of the figures less distinguishable, one is left with a sense of foreboding.

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Meanwhile, Abraham continues to look at the viewer. There is too much glare on his glasses for us to properly make eye contact with him. And yet, the way he turns to face the viewer at this moment that everyone else piles into the crowded train suggests that he does see us. This moment, this pause, is filled with grace and dignity. One cannot help but admire the way Abraham regards the viewer with quiet confidence, despite the uncertainty of his situation.

* * *

6,7,8 July 1943 depicts the inside of the train during the journey from Westerbork to Sobibor.

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I am uncertain if this is meant to be three versions of Abraham in the three positions he assumed during the journey. The charcoal coloring of all three figures suggests that this is the case. All three figures have balding heads and collared coats with trousers. In this work, the boxcar walls are red and black. If you look closely, you may see the familiar tree motif etched into the red with black paint.And then, in the center, there is a giant X scratched onto the canvas, symbolizing, perhaps, the end. The whispers are black now, floating heavily over all three versions of Abraham. He has closed his eyes, bowed his head, and in one iteration, laid on the floor, but never has he lost his dignity. He stands solemnly, his shoulders relaxed. Even in despair, the Abraham that Krabbé has depicted is noble.

* * *

The following work is entitled, Sobibor, 9 July 1943. It depicts Abraham’s arrival at the Polish death camp.

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This is the first time that we see Abraham’s back, rather than his face. He exits the train car and walks toward the lineup. I find it odd that this work, and the previous, depict the train car to be empty despite the testimonials that these cars were filled way past capacity. I believe that this was done to highlight Abraham’s personal emotional journey, rather than to create a realistic image of what the transportation would have been like. Isolating Abraham serves to place focus on him and his relationship to his surroundings, which are filled with symbolic imagery.

In this work, the landscape begins to turn charcoal like Abraham’s figure. The trees in the background- yes, the tree motif we have seen throughout the series- are drawn entirely in charcoal. These are the famous birch trees that populated many of the forests surrounding extermination camps. They are known for having white bark and peculiar black markings all up and down their trunks that resemble eyes. This gives a deeper meaning to the expression, “the forest has eyes.” In this case, the forest did have eyes, eyes that witnessed what was about to happen to Abraham and his fellow Jews.

It is in this painting that the themes of the series come together. The trees and whispers of death that have followed Abraham throughout his life- throughout this series of paintings- end in Sobidor, where they surround him. Abraham’s charcoal existence begins to make sense. It is Krabbé’s way of representing what the Holocaust did for individuals: it tore away their identities until they were nothing more than blank white canvases. Sobidor stripped Abraham of his identity. His past life became a memory, and then a myth. In the first several works we see, it is as if we are looking back on his life after he has died, and his identity is threatening to wash away completely. Krabbé has captured him with charcoal, forcing his memory back onto the canvas and into the minds of viewers. In depicting his grandfather’s story, Krabbé returns to him his identity.

* * *

In the last two works, the metaphor is completed. Much of the canvas turns to charcoal while the color of the paint desaturates until it is only black and white. This is Sobibor, 9 July 1943 11 am. 

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In this work, Krabbé depicts the de-humanizing act of undressing that the Jews were forced to endure in front of the Nazi guards. I think the sorrow in Abraham’s face speaks for itself.

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The forest is watching too. Note how the forest is almost as powerful a protagonist as Abraham himself.

* * *

And finally, Sobibor, 9 July 1943 11:30 am. 

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The field is empty. All of the Jews from the train, including Abraham, are inside the gas chamber of Sobibor. The smoke that steams out of the chimney is black and dotted with white specks- these are the origins of the whispers that chased Abraham through the previous eight paintings, the remnants of his body and soul wiping away his identity:

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Krabbé explains that geese were used to cover the noise of people dying in the chambers, so that new arrivals would not panic and flee. They are painted in red. Perhaps this is because they are the only figures left alive on the canvas.

* * *

It is not easy to read posts like this. I recognize that, and don’t blame you if you skimmed through this or only made it halfway through. It was even harder to write, and more difficult yet to see at the National Holocaust Museum. But exhibits like this are important. In exhibiting this series, Krabbé returned to his grandfather his dignity and his identity. The more we say his name- Abraham Reiss, Abraham Reiss, Abraham Reiss- the more we triumph over the evil that stripped him of his personhood in the first place. Keep Abraham Reiss and Jeroen Krabbé in your minds and hearts.

The Demise of Abraham Reiss is a poignant example of why I love art so much. It has the capacity to make people learn things and feel things that they could not have had they simply read a history textbook. I hope that these images and my words helped you with both. As always, feel free to let me know if you disagree with something I said, or have something to add.

Until next time!

 

xoxo, Chloe ❤