by Will Fenstermaker
My Pupil is an Anvil
NATHALIE KARG GALLERY| FEBRUARY 28 – APRIL 15
In a way, I was primed for it. The onset of seasonal allergies had, a few weeks earlier, caused my ear canals to contract. When they finally relaxed that morning, I realized just how dulled and vertiginous I’d been for days (your ears maintain a delicate equilibrium). I was still prone to stumble while standing. My doctor showed me a chart of the middle ear, in which he pointed out the anvil, a small bone that transmits auditory stimuli into sensations. He demonstrated for this desperate patient how to apply a strategic pressure, and pop—coming out of the muted haze, I again heard the world hum. The sounds themselves weren’t new, but I could hear the tones between them.
A parallel awakening—one that is visual rather than auditory—is enacted by Nathlie Provosty’s paintings. The title of her latest exhibition, My Pupil is an Anvil, is a physiological and pedagogical double-pun. The pupil is the eye and the “I.” And the anvil, whether iron or phosphate of calcium, forges forms through the reception of pressure and force. While each painting is composed of a single color—black, white, or a mild, tinted green—any painter will tell you that “black” is never really black, white is never white, and green is likewise composed of diverse and unexpected hues. Provosty draws this premise out to its own conclusion. Surfaces that first appear like deep voids, upon looking, tessellate further depth. Contingent upon this visual presence, shades of glittering purples and reds, or yellows and perhaps a glimpse of peach, shimmer into perspective as if the canvas was made of wet velvet. Provosty’s paintings contain within them a kind of totality. You want to reach into them but hesitate—not because it’s forbidden, but for the same reason you pause before a door you knew to be closed but now stands before you open.
You can find a path through her paintings by balancing along the contours that weave subtly throughout. Scribe (2018) is composed of a black matte ground, upon which is painted a glossy shape resembling a sine curve. Its radial symmetry is disrupted as if each half of the painting had slid an inch or so in opposite directions, first along the y- and then the x-axis. This shift creates bezels along the perimeter of each quadrant (painted here in white), and opens a small, rectangular nexus at the center of the painting, toward which your eyes spiral. Students of Goethe recall that the eye carries with it the afterimage of every color it previously collected. The colors latent in Provosty’s paintings seem to arise from the accumulation of such subtle responses, becoming activated through reflexivity: the image forms vis-à-vis one’s own vision.1
This effect is only compounded in the white paintings, which infect additional malaise by disappearing into the wall when caught at an angle. In two instances, two paintings are mounted as if they were diptychs on corners such that they seem to echo against themselves, literally triangulating one’s vision. The title of one multiple-canvas painting acknowledges its latent image. Triptych (2018) is actually composed of two paintings.
As philosophical inquiry, the concept of these paintings amounts, almost inexplicably, to an object-based phenomenology. But Provosty’s paintings are designed to be looked at, experienced before being contemplated. While standing before her small, black paintings, which trade depth for intimacy, it is difficult not to think of a sleeping computer screen—specifically, not to think of the glimpse you sometimes catch in the black mirror of your face reflected by a sleek potentiality before an image rises to meet you. It is unfortunate that the metaphors used to explain technology are settled in darkness, as this connotes a lack of vision rather than a becoming. Provosty’s paintings operate as a black box whose response is contingent upon an exchange, rather than just an input. Its computation is pathological. They return to you, privately, discretely, like the internal timbre and echo of softly ringing tinnitus, a retinal afterimage, pulsating across the cool surface, to pass down the optic nerve where it then meets the arteries in the optic disc, a stimulus converted into sensation, the beginning of an interpretation that occurs at the very spot where you are blind.
- In some sense, the terminology most fitting for these paintings is aural rather than ocular; the glossy black next to the matte suggests, like the A of Arthur Rimbaud’s Voyelles, an assonance more than a juxtaposition.
Will Fenstermaker is associate editor of the ArtSeen section of the Brooklyn Rail and digital editor at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He holds an MFA in Art Criticism & Writing from the School of Visual Arts.