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Hall of Mirrors
by Angela Brisnovali
"Between the Acts" is a group show whose title is taken from Virginia Woolf's last piece of fiction of the same name. Curated by New York artist Devon Dikeou, it features the work of 12 American and British artists-1, and includes painting, photography, video, sculpture and installation. Rather than being based on some common ideological framework, the exhibition features work that seeks out, and alludes to, the clandestine rather than the obvious activities of life. As in the play, the artists attempt to capture those elusive "offstage" moments, seemingly insignificant instances which are, however, responsible for the unfolding of the drama; situations or physical manifestations of things which often go unnoticed but which linger in our consciousness. The gallery space thus becomes a kind of stage set for a series of intriguing tales, some highly autobiographical, others demonstrating cosmic concerns.
To begin with, the works appear so varied that the exhibition, as a whole, defies categorization. What becomes apparent, however, apart from the diversity of approach, is that the artists demonstrate a penchant for the enigmatic and the ambiguous, even the extreme. Beth Haggart's video choose your own suffering, for example, explores the notion of human tolerance. As with her earlier work, this piece is heavily autobiographical. In order to prepare herself for possible adversities before departing on a trip to Africa, she subjects herself to a grueling ritual: eating live worms. Haggart records her self-inflicted ordeal in all its graphic detail, as we see and hear her biting, chewing and swallowing her nauseating meal. In the process her face acquires a kind of hardness, a forced lack of expression, which is clearly an indication of her determination to endure this masochistic test with self-discipline and restraint. Excessive it may appear, but Haggart's video cuts right through the essence of notions like human resolve and mind control. The redeeming quality of the video is that, in it, the artist manages to transcend the limitations she has set herself.
Brendan Quick combines a reportage-like pop aesthetic with a conceptual textual approach. In his three black-and-white photographs entitled, deaths, the viewer is confronted with a series of obviously staged, highly theatrical scenes of violence, accompanied by text proposing a variety of ways to die. Quick creates an artificial, farcical situation which parodies the idea of macho behavior and demonstrates a phlegmatic attitude to the idea of mortality. Macabre yet humorous, his stylized incidents remind us of the absurdity of violence and function as a satirical comment on male hooliganism.
Spencer Finch's work is concerned with the relationship between sensory experience, memory, and presentation. Included in the show are three abstract pictures which attempt to capture the image of the Grand Canyon when the artist closes his eyes. In trying to remember the morphology of the location, Finch acknowledges the impossibility of perfectly capturing the fleeting moment. The result is a series of sensory approximations which are reminiscent of the colorful psychedelic patterns one can "see" when facing the sun with ones eyes shut. Despite being based on real experience, Finch renounces visuality in his painting, and, in doing so, imparts to his pictures a dream-like and cryptic character which removes them from the realm of mundane representation into that of the subjective imagination.
Janine Antoni's tender buttons are gold brooches cast from the artists nipples, and continue the artist's preoccupation with using her own body as a point of reference. Placed in a velvet box, enshrined in a plexiglass case they are presented as commodified objects of desire and female sexuality which also challenge the notion that fetishism is a male premise. Apart from the obvious erotic and fetishistic association, their presentation makes them acquire an aura of preciousness that transcends ordinary bodily representations. At the same time, tender buttons is reminiscent of the subversive language of surrealism as well as being part of an ongoing dialogue which deals with the way women articulate desire.
Paul Ramirez-Jonas presents a work that deals with the process of aging and the cycle of life--100, a folding book of 100 black and white close-up portrait photographs portraying a range of people of differing race and ethnicity, aged one to 100. Here, the passage of time, as exemplified by the linear presentation of the work, acquires a specificity which progresses gradually towards the inevitable. Each portrait, though different, gradually seems to lose its sense of individuality as we acknowledge its common destiny.
On the other hand, Paula Hayes' incidental photographic representations exploit the arbitrary, random quality of certain moments in life and extract their essence, while Lisa Hein suggests the impenetrable character of everyday objects. Her altered ready-mades, are familiar objects rearranged so as to create a sense of estrangement and detachment. Pauline Daly's woven net, on the other hand, is as familiar as it is fragile, bringing to the forefront issues of femininity, vulnerability and handicraft in an art that is pronouncedly endowed with womanly qualities.
Combining a variety of materials from antique poles, silver leaf and glitter to sand and grass, Terri Friedman's model for queen victoria's garden with orbiting planets and reflecting pools is a fantastical cosmos that emanates new-age escapism. Friedman's plethoric west coast aesthetic is a post-modern, rococo exercise in ornamentation that celebrates the funky decoration "serious" art mocks.
Matthew Ritchie is interested in the origin and history of the universe, playing with universal ideas of creation and destruction in his wall drawing peh: the tower, and floor piece tebehl. His cosmos is a fragile and futile one doomed to an incessant process of destruction and regeneration, a vicious circle of collapse and disintegration. The comic book appearance of peh (in which a giant hand functions as a metaphor for building and demolition of the tower) pokes fun at these flawed systems and seems to challenge man's futile attempts to build an enduring world.
Rainer Ganahl's wall painting please write in greek words that immigrants should study examines the notion of communication, knowledge and social space. Visitors to the gallery were invited to write Greek words that would enable social interaction onto the wall. The resulting graffiti was more a combination of slang, arbitrary phrases, and indifferent personal statements rather than useful words, indicating that the expectations of the artist are not always those of the viewer.
Devon Dikeou, herself, made a work out of the relics of a previous exhibition of her work, also held at Ice Box. Here, she stacked the remnants of a floor installation of pressed plate metal ceiling tins and, thus, transformed her previously interactive piece into a mock-formalist sculpture of uneven, crooked surfaces, a relic of a decaying industrial past. Apart from functioning as a monument to past creative endeavors--an artistic in memoriam--the work acquired a differentiated presence of its own, and a charm that is particular to used, second-hand objects. In addition to being an intelligent recycling of a previous artwork--something unusual in the art world's incessant pursuit of the new--the piece was also a celebration of the beauty of the ephemeral and the impermanent.
As a curator, Dikeou turns the lack of a thematic framework to her advantage, putting together an exhibition whose challenge lies in finding the ideological kinship between a number of disparate approaches. In fact, one of the most stimulating aspects of the show is to see so many different works entered into a coherent dialogue with one another. Indeed, it did not take long to discover that each work had its counterpart or opposite: one of the main accomplishments of "Between the Acts," then, is that Dikeou has brought together a body of work that cannot be categorized, but manages to hover between the real and the surreal; the pragmatic and the imaginary; the mundane and the onerous; the raw and the sensuous, leaving it up to the viewer to trace her inventive pattern of association.
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