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ANGELUS NOVUS: GRACIE MANSION GALLERY * NEW YORK, NEW YORK

angelus nova
Illona Malka, Dani Tull, Jan Boeckx


During September-October '97, Gracie Mansion Gallery was transformed into a surreal garden of earthly delights, with characters including Barbie dolls, stuffed animals in the form of phalluses, a mural of a bare-chested boy, with the text "dump it all and become a whore," a self portrait as the Devil, red color photographs with S&M overtones and a lascivious white poodle wearing an elaborate wig in Rococo style. In addition to the prevailing spirit of eroticism, the reference to Bosch's garden of earthly delights is appropriate because the international art project presenting this exhibition is based in Antwerp, and the works included evoke historical art of the Lowlands--Brueghel, Ensor, and Magritte as well as Bosch. The organizers are two Belgian artists, Jan Boeckx and Jimi Dams, who initiated the traveling exchange exhibitions three years ago. They also have a project space in Antwerp and are planning another touring exhibition in 1999.

The name "Angelus Novus," which sounds vaguely ecclesiastical or prayerful, was in fact inspired by the title of a late Paul Klee painting of an angel with arms lifted, formerly in the collection of critic Walter Benjamin. When they saw the Klee in an exhibition at the Centre Pompidou in Paris, Boeckx and Dams responded to its message: protecting the past while moving ahead and facing the turmoil of the future. References to the past, especially Surrealism, and a sense of apocalypticism in approaching the millennium, are felt in many of these works. The exhibition subtitle confirms this reading: "The Until It Is All Carried Away in Turmoil Peepshow." While there is lightness and humor in a lot of the work, there is a "dance of death" aspect underlying some of the pieces.

The project comprises work from galleries in France, Holland, Belgium, England, and the U.S. The artists represented at Gracie Mansion were Jan Boeckx and Jimi Dams (Belgium), Mitsy Groenendijk and Lidy Jacobs (Holland), Ilona Malka (U.S.), Estelle Schweigert (France), and Dani Tull (U.S.). The New York exhibition was selected by Gracie Mansion in cooperation with the Belgian organizers. Works by these and other artists had been shown previously in the participating European galleries, in a series of five shows, each unique and curated by the individual gallery.

Designed by Jimi Dams in the salon-style living room of the Gracie Mansion Gallery, now located in an East Village brownstone, the exhibition installation took on an eccentricity equal to that of the works themselves. The sculpture, including Ilona Malka's grotesque, brightly-colored figure opposite the entrance, Lidy Jacobs phallic soft-sculpture characters grouped in the corner by the window, and Mitsy Groenendijk's bewigged poodle nina (from her series "Les Biches Royales") placed on a sideboard, looked like droll houseguests who had settled in for an extended visit. Rather than the customary eye-level hanging of small paintings, photographs and objects, Dams created a stepped, wave-like arrangement up and down the walls and along the baseboards, which worked very effectively and made for visual connections among the works. For example, Estelle Schweigert's staged photograph of a woman lying on a table (la cuisine rouge 2), was hung on an adjacent wall to one of Jan Boeckx's Barbie figures in a similar pose, placed on a shelf near the floor. Boeckx's small computer-manipulated photographs, including his self-portrait, the devil in me, along with images of fish and a loopy betty bloop[sic], were grouped near the Barbies. The eccentric arrangement was enhanced by the informality and domestic atmosphere of the gallery--it would have been more difficult to achieve the same effect in a stark-white industrial space in SoHo or Chelsea.

Jimi Dams also created dump it all and become a whore, with the boy's head and torso painted larger than life, directly on the wall. Sited near a window, it was also visible from the street. This was the simplest but also the most powerful image in the exhibition. Dams's smaller paintings of boys' heads were hung above the baseboard. Although he works in acrylic, his murals and paintings look more like ink line drawings, recalling David Hockney's early portraits and figure studies. Dams had begun this imagery using his own childhood photographs, then progressed to images of other young boys, from photographs, newspapers and from memory. The tension between society's expectation of innocence and the tough, street-wise and sexually aware reality of these portraits, gives them a disturbing edge. Dani Tull's untitled (teen drawing) seems benign and innocent by comparison.

The centerpiece of Angelus Novus at Gracie Mansion, Ilona Malka's boisterous mixed-media sculpture we are pleased to serve you, was impossible to ignore. The cartoony Margaret Thatcher-esque head on a truncated body is a wacky assemblage of colors and images, complete with moving parts and flashing lights. The piece effectively lampoons the buffoonery of political figures and media celebrity. Diametrically opposed in sensibility, Estelle Schweigert's understated color photographs of figures in blue and red environments (specifically bathroom and kitchen) are haunting, ambiguous tableaux of domestic scenes, which seem "real" but are totally contrived and artificial.

Angelus Novus conveyed a refreshingly youthful exuberance, not unlike Gracie Mansion's exhibitions in the '80s. These artists celebrate absurdity and cultural decadence at the end of the century, with wit, irony, and humor rather than angst. The internationalism of the project itself and the spirit of cooperation among the various galleries is clearly a viable exhibition format for the future.

Robert M. Murdock

New York, New York

1997


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