between memory and oblivion, the individual and the mass, concerns the
art of Ruth Liberman. Her art uses text, an archive of textsoften
diaries, letters, and memoirs, other times public manifestations such
as newspaper accounts. And the way she presents these texts is always
contentious. Most often she creates palimpsests, words over words until
the surface sinks into a black mass of wiry lines, revealing a phrase
here and there. At a distance, her pieces look abstract and ravishingly
beautiful, shimmering skeins reminiscent of rayonist compositions by Larionov,
or Cy Twombly scribbles, or Agnes Martin grids. But on closer inspection,
they present fragmentary and often disturbing words. In a stylistic sense,
Libermans art enacts the struggle between memory and forgetting,
which is also the implicit subject matter of the quoted texts.
In MURMUR, the following words emerge from the murk and scatter: he
didnt attack anyone with the hammer, Busch, Why
did you shoot him? Some viewers will recognize the references to
the 2000 news story about Gidone Busch, a harmless, mentally ill Hasidic
man who was executed in cold blood by New York City police. Thats
the claim of bystanders, whose official accounts, they complain, were
suppressedcovered up, as Liberman has done (see Village
Voice, Feb. 23-29, 2000, and American Prospect, Sept. 11, 2000).
With LETTERS FROM THE TOMBS, Liberman presents nine small
works on paper of uniform size, sensuous formalist exercises completely
disengaged from the meanings of those few fragmentary words that do appear1941
and six million unemployed. What the work wont tell
you (but the artist will) is that these mostly illegible texts come from
letters written during the early 1940s by an American communist in the
New York City prison called The Tombs. Given the references to six million
and 1941, one invariably thinks of graver persecutions across the Atlantic,
and its hard to take this dissidents writing entirely seriously.
History has marginalized this letter writer, and in a way so does Liberman.
Her formalist games implicitly poke fun at the well-meaning but ideologically
self-absorbed author, and suggest, perhaps, how we today, in the face
of present-day genocides, extinctions and environmental disasters, remain
preoccupied with our own seemingly towering concerns.
Libermans other two exhibited works directly engage Holocaust memory.
Nailed straight to the wall, JANUARY 20, 1942, constitutes three looming
collections of diary entries. Each entry covers all but the top of the
previous one, making the vast majority of text illegible. As in many pieces,
her medium here is cellophane typewriter ribbonthe detritus of an
obsolete technology and a perfect cypher of twentieth-century bureaucracy.
Here she handwrites on the ribbon with a dental instrument, then presses
the strips of black ink onto Vidalon sheets, leaving negative images of
the written words and an eerie sense of absence. Pencil notations at the
sides offer a wartime date and a place for each entry: Krakow, Bucharest,
and Dresden suggest three distinct dramas for the different diarists.
The particulars, however, remain impossible to ascertain.
Theres an irony in this. I can easily imagine these unknown authors
living in hope that someday people would read their accounts. Could they
have imagined our time, when the Holocaust has become an obsession? When
pro-lifers compare abortion clinics to Nazi death camps? Those diarists
might be shocked to see how present-day custodians of Holocaust memory
seem more determined to distance the past than to confront it.
When Liberman obfuscates the words in JANUARY 20, 1942, she imposes distance,
too, but in a crucially different way. While preventing casual viewers
from indulging in historical voyeurism, she engages others who already
know Holocaust history; the opening date chosen for each of the three
diarists happens to be on or near January 20, 1942, the date of the Wannsee
Conference, where the Nazis decided on the Final Solution.
Still, Libermans obliterated texts maintain an insuperable distance
between present and past. With it, she reminds us that reading a harrowing
account in the comfort of an art gallery could never recreate the sense
of what it was like to live in that time.
A fourth artwork, APRIL 16, 1945, also explores the complexity of historical
understanding. Here, the subject is a photograph of German civilians,
forced by Allied soldiers to confront the horrors of Buchenwald. Widely
published in newspapers at the time, the photo has often been reproduced
since. Curiously, Liberman does not show the photograph. Instead, she
presents enlarged photographs of the captions only. Mounted on wooden
armatures in a horizontal line along the wall, six different captions,
with datable typefaces, microform scratches and other clues, possess the
auras of various periods, 1945, 1975, today. More significantly, they
present ranging interpretative frames for the one missing image. With
them, Liberman vividly demonstrates how captions shepherd and manufacture
Molded plywood sheets whitened with gesso are the materials of José
Gabriel Fernándezs sculptures. They are beautiful and, at
a glance, appear aesthetically pure. The clean, curving forms seem to
refer to nothing more than their own hermetic elegance. Even the generic
titles of three small sculptures suggest abstraction. On pedestals, FIGURE
1, FIGURE 2, and FIGURE 3 appear at first like albino relatives of Boccionis
Development of a Bottle in Space. Certain shapes with machine-like, saw-toothed
edges repeat themselves, as if they developed according to some Futurist
logic. But Futurism is not what inspires Fernández. Any meditation
on his work suggests a quite different inspiration.
That these three pieces resemble the biomorphic works of Jean Arp points
to Fernándezs relationship to Surrealism, in both a visual
and conceptual sense. What a viewer soon notices about the FIGURE sculptures
is the distinct particularity of their component shapes. They feel deliberate,
measured, preconceived. And they are. Each of these sculptures comprises
the forms of a tailors pattern, the templates used for cutting the
fabric of a matador costume, recreated by Fernández in actual scale.
As the titles imply, each refers indexically to the figure of the matador
himself. Yet simultaneously, each also becomes an animated figure in its
own right, as if the tools of the tailor had coalesced before our eyes
into a living being.
This transformation underscores a distinctly Surrealist theme in Fernándezs
art: that of the uncanny. Beginning with fabric patterns, Fernández
takes objects which are familiar, if not mundane. Translating them into
unusual materials, he returns them to us in a guise both unfamiliar and
The dissonance between the ordinary and the marvelous, the inanimate and
the live, gives these works a special dynamism. In particular, it calls
to mind the Surrealist notion of convulsive beauty, that schizophrenic
sense whereby an object possesses, or suggests, multiple identities at
the same time. Consider the 1933 Sculptures Involontaires by Brassaï,
who photographed a smear of toothpaste and the twist at the top of a dinner
roll in such a way that scale and context transform the one into a giant
slug, the other into an exotic sea shell. Though each remains what it
was, it simultaneously becomes something new, vital, even menacing, as
if encountered in a hallucination or a dream. Seeing the familiar anew
induces in us a convulsion (or so the theory goes): we experience a kind
of madness, destabilizing our rationalized assumptions about the world
and opening a conduit straight to our unconscious minds.
With these Surrealist tools, Fernández unlocks a mythic dimension
of his chosen subject, the bullfight. On the floor lies SERPENTINE, a
large gessoed plywood form reminiscent of a manta ray languorously flapping
a wing. In fact, its the template of a matadors emblematic
red cape, recreated in actual size. Frozen in its fall, the cape implicitly
records the structure and motion of the matadors absent body. As
it turns out, serpentine is a bullfighters term for a particular
flourish with the cape, and the sculptures duality between motion
and repose suggests the choreography of the bullfight, the cape alternating
between movements meant to stimulate a bulls attention, and the
stillness which confounds the beast into momentary complacence.
ECLIPSE DE UNA SUERTE (Eclipse of Fate) brings together five wall-mounted
forms, each a matadors cape in miniature, gessoed and riveted to
a rectangular board (two of which Fernández has stained with ashen
gray oil paint). Like SERPENTINE, these small capes preserve movements,
a matadors bracing twists and turns. Under gallery lights, they
also cast a variety of crescent shadows. These recall the bullfight arena
itself, whose sunstruck walls, through the course of a dusty afternoon,
cast a shifting and ominous shadow over matador and bull, enacting an
archetypal symbolism in bullfighting, where light means life and darkness
Fernándezs work has a high finish. One is compelled to glide
a hand over the smooth uniformely white surfaces of the sculptures. But
the blunt whiteness is also puzzling, as though life were drained out
of it, the skin having become an inorganic layer of stone. Since 1996
Fernández has explored the bullfight in videos, installations,
and sculptures made of various materials including fabric. Many of these
dynamic works employed color, with an emphasis on red as a symbol of blood
and death. Most distinct, today, is the evacuation of color, leaving the
tonalities of ash and bone-white gesso, with the consequence that Fernándezs
theme of motion and stillness, vitality and mortality, remains unchanged.
New York, New York