RUTH LIBERMAN/JOSÉ GABRIEL FERNÁNDEZ: MOMENTA ART • BROOKLYN, NEW YORK


The contest between memory and oblivion, the individual and the mass, concerns the art of Ruth Liberman. Her art uses text, an archive of texts—often 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, Liberman’s 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 didn’t 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. That’s the claim of bystanders, whose official accounts, they complain, were suppressed—“covered 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 appear—“1941” and “six million unemployed.” What the work won’t 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 it’s hard to take this dissident’s 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.
Liberman’s 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 ribbon—the 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.
There’s 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, Liberman’s 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 meaning.
*
Molded plywood sheets whitened with gesso are the materials of José Gabriel Fernández’s 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 Boccioni’s 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 Fernández’s 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 tailor’s 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 Fernández’s 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 strange.
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, it’s the template of a matador’s emblematic red cape, recreated in actual size. Frozen in its fall, the cape implicitly records the structure and motion of the matador’s absent body. As it turns out, serpentine is a bullfighters’ term for a particular flourish with the cape, and the sculpture’s duality between motion and repose suggests the choreography of the bullfight, the cape alternating between movements meant to stimulate a bull’s 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 matador’s 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 matador’s 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 extinction.

Fernández’s 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 Fernández’s theme of motion and stillness, vitality and mortality, remains unchanged.

Andrew Weinstein
New York, New York
2001