WHITE COLUMNS, NEW YORK | NOVEMBER 8 – DECEMBER 20, 2014
The body gives itself to the visible, to presence, making it something too easily objectified, idolatrized—a tension embedded in the portrait. In her recent exhibition at White Columns, Mexican-born, New York-based painter Aliza Nisenbaum utilizes portraiture to draw out this excessive visibility of the body and what this visibility obscures: namely, the body as place of torsion—a twisting convergence of presence and absence, actuality and dream, thought and flesh. Painted during long visits, meals, and conversations between the artist and her subjects, Nisenbaum’s portraits of undocumented immigrant families from Mexico and Central America living in New York recall Emmanuel Levinas’s concept of “encounter,” wherein a subject’s relation to an object—the variant appearances of the external world—is already contained in the subject. As portraits of encounter, these paintings manifest the imperceptible horizons, at once internal and external, that permeate and surround a body. They embody the intensities of other worlds—places, pasts, and dreams—not present and yet somehow as much a part of the substance of a body as the flesh itself.
Nisenbaum’s artwork prioritizes this encounter over the distinction of subject and object, artist and sitter, both in her practice and, remarkably, in the paintings themselves. Although the viewer is presented with a figure whose biographical specificity permeates and adds weight to every aspect of body and face, the surrounding space suspends narrative in a dreamy juncture of vividly colored intersecting planes. In this regard, the paintings play with the formal heaviness of the indigenous body often seen in Mexican mural painting, which privileges the body as the drama of social history—the laboring body, the classed and politicized body, the body in resistance. Nisenbaum frees her figures from the mural’s social symbolism and instead confronts the singularity of the face. It is the social from a different vantage, the political drawn from the intimate. The monumentality of the modernist mural tradition is reduced to a more personal encounter with the displaced body, that of the immigrant.
The immigrants depicted here are pensive and daydreaming, figures at rest whose gaze is directed at something, somewhere, beyond the present. The story of the sitter unfolds in words spoken and unspoken, an encounter articulated in color and form, drawn from the space between. “Gustavo” (2014) captures a man in a red and white soccer jersey, sitting and looking off beyond the canvas. While Nisenbaum painted, Gustavo talked—he described to her an elsewhere so vividly detailed that it became reality: “I felt he was helping me while I painted him.” Gustavo has been sending what he earns working here in a T-shirt factory home to Mexico since he was 15. He is now a landowner there: owns a horse, a tractor, and some cattle. This land, his land, is land he has never seen, yet he is able to describe the colors, smells, what it is like to be there. The place is a dream more real than the reality of the New York in which he labors. In the crouching figure—“the thinker,” but dressed for action—there is a latent potency. The bright colors of these portraits translate presence while calling attention to an absence revealed in the dream-life of the face and the fatigued weight of the bodies.
In the still-life paintings, the resonance between the weight or consistency of the body and its sonorous diffusion by pattern takes on a new form. The body and face are substituted for material objects, as in “Vero’s T-shirt” (2014). The T-shirt, which belongs to Veronica (who appears in “Veronica, Marissa, and Gustavo” (2013)), shows a plasticized print of a skull, a Day of the Dead motif, laid out against a flat psychedelic geometric black-and-white background. Alongside it sit a Barnett Newman book and flowers in a vase. The substitution of T-shirt for sitter is magnified by the vase of flowers, a remnant of the auratic which pushes against the mass reproducibility of the “dead” T-shirt as displaced tradition. This remnant recalls Nisenbaum’s previous miniature series of flowers and letters, painted as small remembrances of her mother, pasts that do not wilt.
The immigrant is a figure of gaps in the present—of other lives and places that continue to live in and through the viewer. These are also inter-generational gaps: in “Gloria, Angelica, Jessica” (2014) Nisembaum depicts three women from three generations whose gazes reach in three directions at once. The perspective is flattened and the figures are layered: the mother floats behind her two daughters, as if belonging to another place and time. Her traditional dress is a patterned horizon that spreads out behind them, holding the youngest girl in place; she sits in sneakers and blue jeans, knees drawn up to her chin, absent and bored but looking directly at the viewer. It is the older daughter, however, also in jeans (sign of the contemporary, the “American”), who makes the distance between generations feel acute. She holds the place of tension between past and present, between the mother of the old home, and the youngest, native of the new. These three positions embody the place of the immigrant as body-between, revealing that the flesh alone does not make a body, a place, or a home. The body is composed, like a painting, by its absences—by the intensities that permeate it, like the textures and patterns of a fabric—this is what composes the place of the body.