Swantje Hielscher: A New World

James Fuentes Gallery
October 3 – 25, 2009

Conceptual art can be viewed two distinct ways. First, we can just look at it. The second way is to read the press release (or catalogue), and then look at it. A paper full of graphite cross-hatchings becomes quite another experience if we know that the artist put down a line for every rainbow trout he caught upstate this summer. I think I am confessing a slight resistance to art that requires a blurb to be fully appreciated. I’m a little ashamed about this, but I need to get it off my chest right away.

It also seems to me it’s possible to make conceptual works that can live rich, full lives at both levels of perception—the interaction with the piece itself, and the interaction with its premise. A group show at NURTUREart that I reviewed last year, Enantiomorphic Chamber, had several great examples of works that were visually fascinating and equally intriguing in their conception, making the show as a whole a very satisfying experience, with a lot of entry points for further exploration. The current exhibition at James Fuentes Gallery presents another example of a conceptual artist whose work is interesting at both levels, or perhaps more interesting before reading the press release.

Sculpture (40°42' 43.68"N 73°59'57.02"W), (2009). Telescope, ladder. Dimensions variable. Unique. Courtesy of James Fuentes LLC.

It is immediately evident on entering the gallery that the artist, Swantje Hielscher, is talking about art, not in the Po-Mo way of questioning its value, but as a physical experience, an interaction between a human being and materials. What makes the show good is Hielscher’s careful, artisan-like, almost anal sensibility that is also somehow sly and flirtatious, informing her installations with a distinct voice.

Canvases in increasing sizes are hung up on the wall, neat cut-outs progressively revealing more and more of their stretchers, like some coquettish unveiling. The palette-shaped mirror that is mounted to face the window is perhaps the most obvious of the works; it is the artist looking at herself in her palette, seeing herself through her work, and at the same time reflecting on the world outside. Still, it’s a good reminder; it is a self-portrait, and reflects on other self-portraits throughout art history. A penciled circle on the wall denotes the artist’s “wingspan.” This is both another autobiographical hint, giving us an approximate idea of her height, and a reference to Leonardo da Vinci’s “Vitruvian Man.” (It is worth noting that, as artists expand on an interest in math, they keep returning to the Florentine master. Didn’t Leonardo “conceptualize” the Renaissance project, in a way? Certainly his wide-ranging plans, ideas and models make him a much more important figure than his paintings alone would have done.)

I particularly liked Hielscher’s pretty assortment of brightly colored erasers lined up on a narrow board, suggesting an artist fussing or procrastinating, fetishizing her materials. A printed statement on the wall is just a list of paint colors written as if it were a text; a good joke on press releases, which, naturally, I appreciated.

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