Group Exhibition

Group Exhibition

With its current exhi­bi­tion, Galerie Judin pre­sents a dis­course of extraor­dinary depth in its dis­play of works by Helene Appel, Alisa Margo­lis, and Helen Ver­ho­even. Together, these paint­ings offer a sustained med­i­ta­tion on ques­tions of fig­u­ra­tion and rep­re­senta­tion; each of them toys with the cen­tral­izing narra­tives of history and genre, arrest­ing our sense of certainty about what we see and what we under­stand to be true about the world and its descrip­tions, taking us from high to low, and deep into the gran­u­lar level of things. On the gallery’s walls we are confronted with residues, ruins, traces, dis­ap­pear­ances, and spec­tral and sub­lime reconfig­u­ra­tions; with intrepid interplays of scale; with clas­sical bod­ies that float across the pic­ture plane like dis­placed sig­ni­fiers, cre­at­ing a beau­tiful sense of absur­dity; with a host of sev­ered heads, for­mer icons that are now obso­les­cent; with muses, medusas, and furies—symbols of muted, incomplete jus­tice or its bloody return; or with the detailed minu­tiae of sand, water, meat, and stones, observed with micro­scopic intensity and depicted with precise, forensic intro­spec­tion. Each of these stud­ied obser­va­tions leaves an unmistak­able trace of the uncertain, and in so doing achieves the profound effect of het­erotopic thought in action. The paint­ings fea­tured in this exhi­bi­tion allow us to wit­ness the intricate turn of rep­re­senta­tion back onto itself, to observe the migra­tion of things, of fig­ures and objects, as they are skillfully lib­er­ated from their custom­ary func­tions through a kind of Warho­lian rep­e­ti­tion of the image—sub­tle acts of recon­stitu­tion of the every­day into the epic or transcen­dent, yet on the mod­est scale of daily life.

Appel, Margo­lis, and Ver­ho­even focus on the craft aspect of daily practice, on the rit­u­als of habit­ual pro­cess and the inte­r­ior life of paint­ing, and this pro­vides another reg­is­ter in which their shared dis­course unfolds. If it can be said that the works on dis­play together pose a unifying ques­tion—namely, what it means to be a fig­u­ra­tive painter today, directly confronting the laden issues of rep­re­senta­tion and verisimil­i­tude—their responses are nonethe­less thrillingly diver­gent. Foun­da­tional to all three artists is the device of the recur­sive sequence, the sub­ject whose essence is altered dramat­ically through the mise-en-abyme act of its mul­ti­plica­tion or, in the case of Appel’s work, its repeated illu­sion­is­tic reproduc­tion. We have before us a beau­tiful riot scene of accumu­la­tions, walking a tightrope between real­ism and abs­trac­tion, between pres­ence and absence, between the rev­er­ent analytic and the base sub­lime.

Appel’s work unfolds in a minor reg­is­ter, at 1:1 scale. In these paint­ings, each of them life-size depic­tions, she pre­sents us with metic­u­lously ren­dered illus­tra­tions of the inter­ac­tion between the sub­ject as pure sign and the sub­tle abs­trac­tions, or refine­ments—the shifts in its essence—that occur in the pro­cess of its painterly depic­tion. Appel’s sub­jects are the over­looked and humble objects of daily life: linen, sand, meat, water, plas­tic, and stone. Through a pro­cess of repeated dis­tilla­tions, her paint­ings take us deep into the mys­te­r­i­ous mate­r­ial real­i­ties of these things. These simple, scru­ti­nized objects and their surface rep­re­senta­tions become increas­ingly stripped of affect, almost dema­te­r­i­al­ized. Her method refuses easy access to tactil­ity, that common con­ductor of expe­r­i­ence. Yet remark­ably, we dis­cover that in the extracted and bare essence of her sub­jects—in their base, abs­tracted state—they achieve a kind of exalted, sub­lime power: a cut of meat becomes a relic; an array of stones or sheath of plas­tic is made almost holy in its abil­ity to commu­nicate through near-abs­trac­tion or transfig­u­ra­tion. Her images, then, hover symbol­ically between the fig­u­ra­tive and the non-fig­u­ra­tive, a result of her pen­e­trat­ing inquiry into her sub­jects’ con­di­tions of exis­tence, and what these sub­jects can be seen to rep­re­sent in their mate­r­ial absence.

In making vis­i­ble this elu­sive interplay between the sub­ject and its pla­nar rep­re­senta­tion, Appel’s paint­ings reveal the appa­ra­tus of the artwork in its most ele­mental form. Her work speaks directly to the some­times diffi­cult nego­tia­tion between the sup­port or arma­ture of the paint­ing, and the applica­tion of effect. With her pen­e­trat­ing, forensic gaze, Appel sit­u­ates this interplay between two com­pet­ing states: between the detectible residue of the canvas in its raw, untreated form, and the del­icate, pat­terned fil­a­ments of the image—painted par­ticles of sand, lig­a­ments of flesh hewed to the bone, water as it spreads slowly across a surface. This ten­sion, so faithfully evoked, serves to decon­tam­inate the idea of pure, one-to-one trompe l’oeil illu­sion­ism, draw­ing us ever fur­ther into her transforma­tive world of shift­ing truths. Appel, like Margo­lis, plays expertly with the genre of still life and its detailed exposure, its calcu­lated dis­sec­tion of the object. In the hands of these artists, the genre is tranformed, its abil­ity to speak height­ened; it becomes resit­u­ated as a medium of philo­soph­ical spec­u­la­tion.

This exhi­bi­tion marks a sub­tle shift in Margo­lis’s practice, as she fur­ther abs­tracts the recur­sive applica­tions of dec­o­ra­tive craft ele­ments in her paint­ings. Here she maintains her med­i­ta­tions on the human scale or in the minor reg­is­ter (like Appel’s every­day objects) as a way into the transcen­dent or sub­lime, sub­ver­sively approach­ing paint­ing, as it were, from the wrong angle: through the repet­i­tive markings or iter­a­tions that belong more formally to craft technique. Related to this, and form­ing a link with her pre­vi­ous work—deeply evoca­tive and abs­tracted still lifes that read like bleed­ing arabesques of mat­ter in cosmic motion—are her sustained inter­ests in the dec­o­ra­tive her­itage of the Baroque and the stud­ied illu­sion­ism of still life paint­ing. The work dis­plays Margo­lis’s fas­cina­tion with what might be termed the Ur-image and the ven­er­ated role it has played in aes­thetic and moral dis­course through the cen­turies, from the sacred place it was afforded in clas­sical mythol­ogy to its unifying posi­tion in the iconog­ra­phy of mod­ern fairy tales. Her per­ver­sions of these foun­da­tional sig­ni­fiers and their cen­tral­izing tropes sat­u­rate the work on dis­play.

Margo­lis takes the pro­cess of the recur­sive image and anchors it to a broader con­cept of practice that she has described as “end­less paint­ing”: the notion of the con­stantly unfold­ing narra­tive, the accumu­la­tion of mark making as a new path to the epic or the divine. This is a crit­ical theme that unites her work across the years. Her paint­ings forge surpris­ing connec­tions to the tra­di­tion of mod­ernism, specif­ically to Abs­tract Expres­sion­ism and its assertive claims to the sub­lime (think the color fields of Bar­nett Newman). Uneasy with such unques­tioned enti­tle­ment to the grand scale, Margo­lis opens a new and sub­ver­sive path to the transcen­dent—from below, through a pro­cess of daily making, mark upon mark. Margo­lis’s work, like Ver­ho­even’s, performs sub­tly pow­erful acts of blas­phemy; it demys­ti­fies canon­ical ide­als and their deep hold on the struc­tures of mod­ern thought. Her paint­ings depict the most ven­er­ated images of clas­sical antiq­uity, painted with brilliant technical skill, but leaves them adrift in aim­less, absurd use­less­ness, lib­er­ated from the yoke of tra­di­tional ide­als of mas­culin­ity, power, and beauty yet still, amidst the wreck­age, reconfig­urable. Forced into moder­nity, float­ing, exposed, they enter our own messy, con­tra­dictory phys­ical world simply as a col­lec­tion of guys on the move—absurd, sub­lime, but somehow also fully pre­sent (if funda­mentally altered) in their antique form. These inter­ven­tions by Margo­lis, like those of Ver­ho­even, hint at a method of histor­ical transfig­u­ra­tion, what Wal­ter Benjamin called “the tiger’s leap into the past”—a sud­den, bold move­ment into the “open air of history.” That Margo­lis does this through a pro­cess she calls minor mark making is all the more striking. Much like her earlier work, her recent paint­ings are arrest­ing in their com­po­si­tional ambi­gu­ity; fig­ures bleed into one another and appear in their rep­e­ti­tion to dis­integrate into some greater but more uncertain whole. The ambi­gu­ity is dis­con­cert­ing, but one expe­r­i­ences it, above all, as an open­ing, a pos­si­bil­ity.

Ver­ho­even, too, treats the fig­ure recur­sively, as a thing in end­less rep­e­ti­tion; it is a banal assem­bly of parts but with an intrinsic, already unfixed muta­bil­ity. In Ver­ho­even’s paint­ings the sub­ject hov­ers, por­tentously, threat­en­ingly, on the edge of total trans­po­si­tion. One thing threat­ens to become another, leav­ing the viewer expec­tant, fearful, roused. Ver­ho­even’s paint­ings con­cen­trate the mind. The spectator, like her sub­jects, becomes unmoored in her clever and provoca­tive plays of rep­re­senta­tion. The grand recon­struc­tion she has devised for this exhi­bi­tion of her 2015 paint­ing Hoge Raad, which depicts the densely crowded inte­r­ior of Hol­land’s Supreme Court (where the paint­ing is hung and thus rarely seen in per­son), performs a profound act of uncertain, ambigu­ous return, repeat­ing the motifs of recur­sive­ness and dis­tilled, sec­ondary rep­re­senta­tion that so ani­mate the work of Appel and Margo­lis. Her replica­tion of the paint­ing leaf by leaf from the more widely acces­si­ble book format sees her revis­it­ing and per­haps alter­ing one of the crit­ical themes of the orig­inal work. In recon­struct­ing the paint­ing for us, Ver­ho­even brings forth another pow­erful aspect of the body politic and the play of rep­re­senta­tion (polit­ical and oth­er­wise) that lie at the heart of the Hoge Raad.

Ver­ho­even’s oeuvre, as compellingly illus­trated in the paint­ings on dis­play here, is pop­u­lated with specters of vio­lence and desire, transcen­dence and sub­juga­tion, mal­ice and aggres­sion, suffer­ing, for­give­ness, guilt, and abso­lu­tion. In an inter­view with the Dutch writer and poet Maria Barnas, Ver­ho­even under­scored her fixa­tion on the vio­lent extremes and con­tra­dic­tions of human expe­r­i­ence, and on “our capac­ity to live with such ruth­less dis­crep­ancies.” Like Margo­lis, Ver­ho­even confronts the complex, lay­ered iconogra­phies of her sub­jects with a con­cen­trated, pen­e­trat­ing intensity; the effect is a se­ries of stunn­ing rev­e­la­tions. Ver­ho­even’s paint­ings reveal what dis­course buries or dis­guises, what it overde­ter­mines and bur­dens, what it mis­rec­og­nizes, or resists. It could be said that she makes vis­i­ble what is repressed or omitted in the sto­ries we tell about our­selves—about cul­ture and history, about pol­i­tics and its institu­tions, love and death. Ver­ho­even’s acts of erasure, alter­ation, or dis­place­ment sus­pend our sense of order in the world, the rela­tion of things to one another, the web of sig­ni­fica­tions we are wrapped in. Margo­lis sim­i­larly trou­bles, or dis­en­chants, our faith in history’s narra­tives, offer­ing in place of our for­mer convic­tions a thrillingly new expe­r­i­ence of the world, which can strike like a Dam­a­scene conver­sion, in all its sub­lime incar­na­tions.

Both Margo­lis and Ver­ho­even play with this dis­rup­tion of symbolic regimes, gen­er­at­ing ten­sion in the cyclical chore­ogra­phies of their com­po­si­tions and produc­ing, as Appel does, a kind of gen­er­a­tive grammar all their own, one that refuses in very sub­tle ways the simple machin­ery of illu­sion­ism, even as they con­tinue to mobi­lize it. The aim of these artists, then—seen together here for the first time—is not, to borrow from Gilles Deleuze and Claire Par­net, “to redis­cover the eternal or uni­ver­sal”; the goal is not to answer ques­tions but to pose them, to pull assertively at the center; not to con­clude but rather “to find the con­di­tions under which some­thing new is produced,” to free thought and cre­ative expres­sion, to free paint­ing itself from any sense of comple­tion or fealty to the grand ges­ture. Like a se­ries of archae­o­log­ical spec­u­la­tions, produced from teem­ing accumu­la­tions of history and mat­ter, the paint­ings on view at Galerie Judin were cre­ated from frag­ments either banal or over­looked; forgotten, unseen, or hid­den; overde­ter­mined or narrowly histori­cized. Per­haps most importantly, and most pow­erfully, Appel, Margo­lis, and Ver­ho­even pre­sent us with images that are them­selves propo­si­tions on the sub­jects of rep­re­senta­tion and pro­cess; each of their paint­ings—in their infi­nite reconfig­u­ra­tions and irrev­er­ent argu­ments—offers wholly transforma­tive mod­els of practice.

Group Exhibition

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