Josephine Halvorson, Peony, 2022. Acrylic gouache on panels, 65 x 80 inches overall, (25 panels, 13 x 16 inches each). © Josephine Halvorson. Courtesy Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York. Photo: Julia Featheringill.
On ViewSikkema Jenkins & Co.
Josephine Halvorson: Unforgotten
March 17–April 22, 2023
There is a wonderful poem by Elizabeth Bishop, simply titled “Poem,” in which she describes a painting by her great-uncle, whom she never met.1 The painting is a landscape “about the size of an old-style dollar bill,” where cows are “two brushstrokes each, but confidently cows,” and a “specklike bird” might actually be “a flyspeck looking like a bird.” Bishop writes about painting as life and the memory of it compressed, life and memory becoming each other to the point that we cannot discern the difference. “Which is which?” Bishop asks.
When Josephine Halvorson, whose solo show Unforgotten is currently on view at Sikkema Jenkins & Co. Gallery, tells me that Bishop is her favorite poet, I feel extremely pleased with myself for already having guessed this much. For many years now, Halvorson has been creating plein air paintings that archive a world subject to change, fully attuned to the fact that we ourselves are changing alongside it. Life and the memory of it become indiscernible not because Halvorson’s paintings are particularly realistic in their rendering, but because they capture the essence of the thing portrayed. The sky appears extra blue, the way I see it in my mind on a gray day, and the leaves appear, for lack of a better word, extra leafy. It’s not quite exaggeration, but a thickening of presence. As the artist beautifully explained in a 2022 lecture at Boston University, “I really want to make a painting that remembers better than I ever can.”
Josephine Halvorson, Roadside Memorial, 2021. Acrylic gouache on panel, 22 x 24 inches. © Josephine Halvorson. Courtesy Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York. Photo: Julia Featheringill.
The fourteen new works that constitute this exhibition were made over the past three years of the pandemic, during which the artist lost her father to COVID-19. They continue Halvorson’s ongoing interest in the theme of memento mori, now informed by a new sense of loss. Upon entrance, the largest painting in the exhibition asserts its presence on the left wall. Consisting of twenty-five panels measuring 13 by 16 inches each, Peony (2022) depicts a flower planted by Halvorson’s partner in their garden in the Berkshires. For the duration of six weeks in the summer of 2022, Halvorson observed the flower and chronicled its journey through life. Since 2018, the artist has been working in a particular technique reminiscent of fresco, painting with acrylic gouache on an absorbent ground. The result, as with fresco, is that each mark becomes permanent the moment Halvorson makes it; there is no time to move the paint around and maneuver it like there is when working in oil on canvas. The observation and the painterly gesture are fixed in the same moment.
Looking around the gallery at still lives of flowers, bulletin boards, and rusty industrial detritus, I imagine Halvorson wandering in search of chance encounters with everyday settings that grab her eye. What sparks the artist’s curiosity are not mountainous views and lavish landscapes, but the seemingly banal, which the artist approaches as sacred. And who says it isn’t? Roadside Memorial (2021) captures an arrangement Halvorson stumbled upon in Dixon, New Mexico, commemorating someone’s life with a variety of fresh flowers, a Guadalupe candle, and a circular object that reads “Friends are the flowers in the garden of life.” My attention pauses on this rather strange phrase. Do friends decorate life and ultimately die like flowers? I guess this is true, and sometimes you have to pull out the weeds, too.
Josephine Halvorson, Important Notice, 2023. Acrylic gouache on panel, 33 x 40 inches. © Josephine Halvorson. Courtesy Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York. Photo: Julia Featheringill.
Several other paintings similarly show Halvorson’s attraction to the language embedded in everyday objects, and the sublime absurdity that can be found in the act of reading. Most strikingly, Important Notice (2023), depicts a cork bulletin board Halvorson tells me she found in a barn. The board is adorned with old receipts, what looks like assembly instructions for a tool table, and an old, browned note labeled “Important Notice.” The note reads: “The management regrets that it has come to their attention that employees dying on the job are failing to fall down. This practice must stop, as it becomes impossible to distinguish between death and natural movement of the staff. Any employee found dead in an upright position will be dropped from the payroll.” Absolutely baffled by this piece of writing, I ask Halvorson whether she can illuminate its meaning. She answers that she too was struck by its tone and opaque meaning, but that it “resonated with the cruel practices of some employers (Amazon, for instance) during the pandemic and the disregard for human life. It also struck me as relating to a theme I come across in my practice, which is that things are neither dead nor alive, but both, or hovering somewhere in between,” Halvorson writes in an email message.
And indeed, Halvorson’s paintings exist somewhere in the space between animate and inanimate. While the French term nature morte literally means “dead nature,” the artist makes an argument for the contrary. “Still life” becomes “still alive,” referring not only to the subject of the painting, but also its maker. Motionless objects are activated by Halvorson’s act of looking, of paying attention to that which goes unnoticed by most. Toward the end of her “Poem,” Bishop writes:
Life and the memory of it cramped,
dim, on a piece of Bristol board,
dim, but how live, how touching in detail
—the little that we get for free
In a world wired to ensure that capitalism is the only system that succeeds, a world that allows us so little for free… How touching in detail, the blue paint peeling off a station meter, tired from the heat. How touching in detail, a tumbleweed bravely detaching itself from its roots in a desire to dance. How touching in detail, a tiny post-it declaring affection above a crowded office desk. In Halvorson’s work these touching details are unforgotten.
- The poem was published in The New Yorker, November 11, 1972, p. 46.