New York, NYPaul Kasmin Gallery
JUNE 21 – AUGUST 17, 2018
A show at turns multicolored and monstrous, “SEED” opened at Paul Kasmin on the eve of the summer solstice, with a packed house. Twenty-nine intergenerational female-identifying artists, brought together by curator Yvonne Force, were selected to show a single work that seems to have been conjured rather than created. Force chooses witchcraft as a metaphor for the artistic process, and it proves ripe for interpretation, supplying a historical and theoretical framework for considering depictions of femininity and its archetypes and crucially, magical and non-rational thought. Yoko Ono’s door, white-washed and stretching more than eight feet tall, is a magnificent greeting upon entering the gallery. Placed at a sharp angle, DOORS (2011) creates a fork in the atrium between the two perpendicular gallery spaces in which the art works are exhibited. However immobile, the door is a perfect intervention—a gateway, Yoko Ono would agree, into an alternate realm.1
Wangechi Mutu’s Small Pox I and II (both from 2016) are sculptural models of the virus at millions of degrees of magnification, papier-mâché orbs that transmute the dark engineering of the viral form into a hand-made reflection on how the virus tore into her country. Smallpox viruses are agents of destruction where they land, carried by trade and imperialism into countries like Kenya, where Mutu was born—and virtually no smallpox was present prior to colonial rule.2 In searching for pictures of the smallpox virus, terrible images of infected children and adults are unavoidable; the more research is done, the harder it is to separate the biological structure of the virus from the distinctive forms of its contagion. The surface of the works—coated with red soil, characteristic of Kenya’s landscape—is covered with small mountains, which resemble the bumps caused by smallpox on the skin more than the actual biological structure of the virus, as an attempt to bring the virus into view as a symbol within Mutu’s emotional vocabulary, as a means of understanding.
In another room, the subtle strength of the curves is different. In the middle of the canvas, flaring as if a set of gills and pivoting as if a disco ball, is a floating almond shape. Loie Hollowell’s From the Beginning (inversed) (2017) advances the artist’s fascination with the female body, sexuality, and psychoanalysis to full abstraction. As the artist Trenton Doyle Hancock pointed out during an early studio visit, the treatment of this shape—then referring to the female figure’s vagina in Eyeing the Everglades (2011)—makes it glint, as if a flashlight.3 In Hollowell’s thesis work, she had painted women looking at their own genitals in a mirror while lying in Rousseau-like forests. Amongst the muddy browns and greens, the vagina has a color palette of its own, and a luminosity designed to attract our attention. From her ultra-scholarly MFA work at Virginia Commonwealth University, completed in 2012, which grappled with Lacan’s “mirror-stage” writings and Henri Rousseau’s depictions of savage nature, Hollowell has shifted into non-narrative mystical painting using recognizable sexual forms.
In a sentiment that predates Courbet’s The Origin of the World (1866), the mandorla/mandala is the symbolic shape from which everything begins. What Courbet, and even Lacan (despite purchasing The Origin of the World) couldn’t do was to hold the mirror up to themselves. From the Beginning (inversed) is a self-portrait but Hollowell presupposes the mirror stage—it has ceased to be of interest—and instead paints the glowing form itself and however much space-time the medium (including built-up pieces of foam) allows. Psychoanalytic tropes and art historical references once essential to her practice have melted away and only the “essential” remains: sublime and engulfing. But to dub Hollowell a “Georgia O’Keefe for the Instagram age,” as one reviewer lauds, is a hollow reduction.4 It takes away the specificity of her artistic trajectory for the sake of a generalizing view of female Abstract Expressionism that stylistically “looks” very similar. Even if the return to universal female forms is parallel, it is a product of two very different processes of self-exploration and meditation.
There’s a certain fantasy across the show of what women do when they are alone and left to their own devices. Depictions of female-run colonies abound, notably in Sanam Khatibi’s Empire of the birds (2017), Sophia Narrett’s Stuck (2016), and of course Lisa Yuskavage’s A No Man’s Land 2 from 2013. These are worth sustained attention, both for their politics and scenography—neoclassical, futuristic, and post-chemical-spill apocalyptic respectively. Her mise-en-scène portrays women engaged in a communal activity with anonymous solidarity; acutely aware of the others, trading glances, and falling into formations. The calm confidence in the expression of women in these works affirms the value—symbolically—of a female-centered community.
Jessica Craig-Martin stands out with the sole photograph included in the show. With the deadpan nonchalance also captured by Lauren Greenfield in Generation Wealth, two women hold up gaudy bejeweled and manicured hands in Equality of Outcome (2017) for a flash photo. These women layer their hands in a foreshortened fleur-de-lis formation, bringing their blinged out and manicured fingers into a delicate arrangement staged enough to be symbolic. The woman appear as a committee assembled after imbibing a couple of glasses of hooch, pledging a pact that Craig-Martin implies does not extend beyond the night, the flashing lights, or the gold-encrusted doors. It is the blatant frivolousness of wealth that gives Equality of Outcome its double meaning: the social pact documented in this image can not only be read as a pre-emptive absolution of the night’s sins, but it represents for Craig-Martin a display of class exceptionalism. The political policy “equality of outcome” requires a redistribution of wealth as opposed to “equality of opportunity” which demands that all citizens have the ability to compete economically. The double-entendre here suggests that economic wealth and power circulates in a closed circuit, redistributing itself “equally” only within a small population. As a high-society event photographer Craig-Martin’s b-roll reflects an anthropological curiosity of these social gatherings, and a snide revealing of the subliminal pacts of the privileged.
In terms of portraiture, the selected works similarly span worlds. Robin F. Williams’s In the Gutter (2015) is breathtaking. Set in a neon palate, with a stucco-like surface, our protagonist uses her elbows to steady herself on the sidewalk edge and position her naked lower body directly above a row of gutter grates. For a period of time Williams’s portraits were almost exclusively of men, but in the past three years she has coolly set her sights on painting psychedelic scenes of women that feel best-described as “in the wild.” It is unclear what the women Williams paints are doing, but they are absorbed in their activities: fully-present and self-assured. Their gaze is often resentful, even antagonistic of the viewer’s stare and unwanted attention. The Madonna of In the Gutter has been caught in deep concentration preparing for what appears to be the act of shitting in the gutter, having just scurried out of a house wearing only mirror-plated gold accessories and tinted shades. The house—set back in a grove of trees overlooking a grassy clearing—has one single window lit. We are given just enough detail for the mind to search frantically for a coherent narrative.
In the show, exploration of identity is not deconstructive or reductionist but rather fully imaginative. The works’ meaning lies in the details, in the history of the forms, and in their combination, which more often than not spiral into surreal or intentionally absurdist narratives. Katherina Olschbaur’s very new work, Sailor In A Sea Of Possibilities, 2018 conceals and reveals a figure with a single theatrical flourish of a petticoat. A continuation of work on view at Nicodim Gallery in Los Angeles in her solo exhibition “Horses,” Olschbaur’s surrealist study interweaves forms—which in some work are extremely abstract—to depict a kind of centaur wearing bright orange Victorian-era heels. The actual identity of this animal figure is lost in a hazy cloud of black oil-stick scribbles in which both the silhouette of a horse’s head and the jaunty swing of an arm seem present. The stylized step of seemingly human legs is counter-posed to the swooping gallop of a set of large hind horse legs, which resolve at their base on the right side of the canvas, in a reflected shadow of these shoes, rendered in light orange strokes. The overall effect is a very strange, yet a poetic product of fascination with warping and combining symbolic imagery. Taking a cue from Patti Smith, Olschbaur’s horses are forms of the subconscious, very real within the “sea of possibilities.”5
Vanessa German’s sometimes i want to kill you #2 (2016) takes darkness and transforms it. This “power figure,” as she calls them, is made of found objects: cowry shells, keys, and what looks like antique decorations. The figure holds a weapon but the words are caught, static and unspoken, within the objects used to make it. German’s titles are mantras that I imagine plagued her throughout the act of making. Not only a visual artist, but also a performance poet, German knows that words are incantations. “I wrote a poem to cure my friend of cancer,” she announces in a public talk, “…it may sound like I was just reading a poem but what I was doing was curing my friend of cancer.”6 Across the show, spirits are conjured to give us some of their power, brought to life in these works to teach, to process, and to heal.
- “‘These are the doors that we opened and closed to go through life,’ Ono explained. ‘There were many doors that blocked us. But we opened them, and we went through. This is the journey to uncurse yourself.’” From Leslie Camhi. “Yoko Ono’s ‘Uncursed’ Opens in New York.” Vogue, October 28 2011.
- William H. Schneider, “Smallpox in Africa during Colonial Rule.” Cambridge University Press: Medical History, Vol. 53.2 (April 2009). pages 193–227.
- Loie Hollowel, “Reflections on Sexuality, Sensuality, and Painting.” VCU Scholars Compass. 2012.
- Haley Mellin, “Is Loie Hollowell a Georgia O’Keefe for the Instagram Age?” VICE, June 6 2017.
- Patti Smith, “Land” from Horses, Arista Records, 1975.
- Vanessa German, “Poem,” TEDx via YouTube, December 5, 2011.