Novella Gallery | January 17 – February 8, 2015
If the power of contemporary art lies in its propensity to both reflect and give shape to the consciousness of our times, one might expect to find it laden with signs of cultural transformation. Of the handful of young artists directly engaging the shifting ethos, Danielle Mysliwiec is singular in her appeal to the move beyond gender hierarchies and, more broadly, that which has informed our attitudes toward the natural world. In Harbinger, the artist’s aptly-titled first solo show in New York, Mysliwiec fuses abstract painting—that most male-dominated of modernist genres—with the traditionally female art of weaving, resulting in a body of work rich with personal and cultural portent. With exquisite subtlety and a masterful handling of her materials, Mysliwiec both pushes painting into new territory and, entirely without didactics, poses a profound challenge to some of modernism’s most persistent dualisms.
Unlike many other artists working with textiles today, Mysliwiec’s focus is not so much on the materiality of fiber or the literal act of weaving as it is on employing warp and weft as metaphor. Indeed, of the eight paintings in the show, only two feature strips of fabric the artist has woven together. In the others, warp and weft are suggested by other means, most notably with what has become the artist’s signature mark: the accumulation of tiny “threads” of paint applied with a specialized tool that, when densely layered at opposing angles, achieve the illusion of a woven surface. Two stunning paintings made in this way punctuate a group of five canvases serially arranged along the gallery’s main wall. “Nocturne I” and “Nocturne II” (all works 2014) are, along with their neighbors, narrow vertical pieces of approximately human scale whose totemic shape lends them a numinous aura. Both are a deep Prussian blue that reads from a distance as black, their surfaces covered with tightly overlapping ribbons of paint that form a rough mesh, its “weave” becoming wobbly and irregular along a ridge that runs down the paintings’ centers. Unlike in a machine-manufactured textile, the weave here is decidedly imperfect, its structure more like that of a spider web, where the vagaries of process have deeply informed the result. Underscoring the tension between order and disorder, loose strands of dried paint hang from the edges like wayward threads. Dark, earthy, and mysterious, the “Nocturnes” exude nature—and, in their appeal to the human form, evoke our inextricable embeddedness in it.
Flanking the “Nocturnes” are three paintings of identical dimensions that feature raw linen variously covered with a kind of silver leaf. In the center of the group is “Uma,” named after the artist’s newborn daughter. Here, thin vertical strips of silver leaf-covered linen hang from the uppermost edge of the canvas, the loose bundle gathered by a single thread mid-way down the piece revealing large swaths of the cloth substrate. Evocative of a sheaf one might extend as an offering, “Uma” inflects the surrounding work with a sense of warm elicitation. Closing the set like elegant parentheses are “North” and “South,” in which the vertical strips featured in “Uma” are interwoven with chevron-shaped pieces of fabric that run up and down the painting at rhythmic intervals. The alternating light and dark arrangement of the five works provides a subtle echo of the show’s address to the integration of opposites.
The thematic refrain of interconnectedness is intensified throughout by the works’ dynamic engagement with the viewer. Not only do the loose strips hanging from the linen pieces become part of the viewer’s space as they sway with fluctuating air currents, but the reflective quality of the silver makes for an experience of continual visual flux. Nowhere is this more evident than in “Equinox I” and “Equinox II,” two smaller paintings composed of tiny shard-like shapes of silver leaf interspersed with similarly shaped specks of Prussian blue. Here, the intricate meshes become shimmering orchestras of light, their radiating wave-like patterns suggesting a kind of cosmic pulse. Moving around the room, one notices that no two glances witness the same painting, so thoroughly are the latter dependent on one’s own movements and position in space.
Of all our inherited cultural dualisms, that which insists on our fundamental separation from nature—and indeed from the larger cosmological matrix—is perhaps the most pernicious. It is also the most lasting, as it is something the deconstructivist agenda of much postmodernism seems to have ignored. In some small but growing circles, corrective efforts are underway, one such being that proposed by American eco-feminist scholar Charlene Spretnak. Instead of the radical relativism and groundlessness championed by Deconstruction, Spretnak suggests a new “ecological postmodernism,” one which takes as its basic tenet that all reality is fundamentally relational. With its richly layered allusions to the elemental fabric in which we all participate, Mysliwiec’s work is both a testament to and a powerful embodiment of this emerging sensibility. And it is no small matter that she has chosen the historically male-dominated medium of painting with which to make her case, mired as it has been in the myth of the autonomous individual. As the exposed linen of many of her canvases suggests, the union of warp and weft has been with us all along; it has just been buried beneath layers of lesser wisdom.
TANEY RONIGER is an artist, writer, and frequent Rail contributor.