“Traversing the Unexplained”
Review of the Exhibition “Traverse”
By Catherine Copeland
“Traverse” is at William Holman Gallery through March 24, 2016
65 Ludlow Street, New York, NY
Curators: Rebecca Bird, Peter Bonner, Farideh Sakhaeifar
Participating Artists: Lee Etheridge IV, Bruce Gagnier, Frantiska+Tim Gilman, Baseera Khan, Charles Koegel, Dana Levy, Beth Livensperger, Leah Raintree, Margot Spindelman, Dov Talpaz, Heeseop Yoon
I think it is rare to encounter art today that does not benefit from a bit of research into the context in which it was made, the language it uses, and the intent of the artist. It’s as if, walking from gallery to gallery on a Saturday afternoon, a crash course in the language of each show is necessary, even to determine the answer to a simple question: “do I like it?”
The group show “Traverse,” up through March 24th at William Holman Gallery, is aptly named. It combines bronze sculpture with paintings, drawings, digital and video art. It’s theme is not this ideology or that, conceptual versus aesthetic, nor is it a survey show. As much as it has called into one room such variety of mediums, it seems more focused on asking: How does the viewer navigate such idiosyncratic terrain? And so I set about traversing the shifting contexts, mediums and approaches that threatened to throw me off the cliff.
Bruce Gagnier’s life-sized bronze, “Odille,” was my first encounter. I know this Rodin-esque language---Bruce was my teacher years ago---so it was an easy foothole to grasp. The sculpture has the raw power of Rodin, but has something extra, something special: It has humility, and a certain graphic, cartoony quality. I found myself coming back to this sculpture again and again, trying to engage an individual who is more present than some living beings. I have no idea if Gagnier would resent being compared to Rodin, but the way he has managed to work beyond him, eschewing sentimentality or forced poetry, is remarkable. His technique is pure portal…from his house to ours…a tripping personal humanity.
The large, fractured water color behind Odille, by Beth Livensperger, is also a language with which I am familiar. The modernist fracturing of the picture plane combined with traditional watercolor is pleasing, and the white girding that zags across its surface is the most memorable aspect. I find that Odille is calling me back, however, as the form and content of this watercolor feels less galvanized. It is most tricky to work in a traditional medium such as watercolor or bronze, and Livensperger’s painting feels poised to transcend its dusty heritage, yet still clings.
The pieces that give Odille a run for her money, are Leah Raintree’s two small (ink?) drawings on crumpled paper. I think I revisited these most often, and, ultimately, these two held me in the gallery past my deadline. I found them absolutely beautiful, mysterious and captivating. So metaphoric in their reference to topographical maps, so like the time I spent as a child at the beach; so formally rigorous and technically OCD, yet so much like nature. The light-play on the facets of these drawings are dizzying and calming at the same time. This looks like an artist who listens intently in the studio, who does not indulge every mistake, but seizes upon the shining jewel. I can’t imagine how long it took her to make these, but they somehow do not feel arduous.
Both Odille and Raintree’s drawings benefit from natural light (as all art does), and I commend the curators for their placement here. Actually, the whole show is very thoughtfully placed, so kudos to Peter Bonner, Rebecca Bird and Farideh Sakhaeifar.
I am least familiar with video art---I’m not sure how to take it in other than through my film-viewer’s eyes---but Bazeera Khan’s piece “Brothers and Sisters” held me. Perhaps because I lost my own father two years ago, the halting recollections of the father in the video made me yearn for a video of my own family…a timeless encapsulation of the essence of a person that can come through a recording of their voice. I enjoyed very much the mystery of the spinning colored lights in this video; my not knowing what mechanism they came from, searching my own history for a clue. This gap in visual knowledge compelled me to cling to the audio elements in a way that the familiar window shape did not.
Heading down the corridor, one had to choose whether to grasp the totemic diptych of grey-tone that was Frantiska+Tim Gilman’s piece, or wriggle toes into Heeseops Yoon’s exhausting tangle of ink. I chose Frantiska+Tim Gilman’s “Untitiled (Curtains),” since it’s more comfortable for me. Both of these works, out of the entire show, made me long for the days I used to smoke pot: “Curtains” would undoubtedly have unfolded as an epic poem, and Heesop’s drawing would have held me for hours (translate: 20 minutes), lost in a sprawling suburban mall, searching for my car. This is a compliment of a certain nature: The former feels like a meditation on alienation from nature and our own bodies, and the latter requires that one have “all the time in the world.”
Charles Koegel’s two drawings feel artchitectonic, diagrammatical, illustrational. What I like about these pieces is the color. The color, for me, transcends the stiffness of delivery. I’m pretty certain this artist is revealing himself, even as he is hiding behind a lot of hard work. I enjoyed this tension, and found that I went back to these a few times, and leaned in to get a closer look.
Across the way, Margot Spindelman’s small, torn ink and guache drawings did not draw me in. I feel like this technique would be more interesting if Spindelman would reveal herself more. A few dildos and vaginas? Or a stricter formalism that can hold the repression better? I can feel a hint of the energy behind these, the voice aching behind the closet door, but it’s only seeping out the bottom, and I want to crack open the door and peer within.
After the corridor, the back room opens up and there is Lee Etheridge’s digital print of an unoccupied suburban housing complex outside Shanghai (Lee lives in China). It feels personal, like a self-portrait, even as it represents the shell of the many lives it might encapsulate. The criss-cross of telephone wires between us and the complex is like the moan of something far away or deep within. There is a feeling of futility and loneliness, an echoing of missed connections, a deep pathos that rings out onto deaf ears. “It a tree falls in the forest…” And so as cold as the palette and image are, it seems personal and strangely anthropomorphic.
Watching Dana Levy’s video was both fun (in the way of pop-up books) and compelling. I found this image of a drawing of the bedroom of Louie XIV collapsing to be quite an effective metaphor for the collapse of capitalism, regardless of what the artist intended. To me, it looks like Donald Trump’s bedroom not only crumbling, but turning out to be made of nothing more sturdy than graphite. Because of the static camera position, it also feels tawdry and lonely, of pomp and little circumstance…so who really cares if it is crumbling before our eyes? I like this cocktail of straight-forward presentation, children’s book playfulness, and material destruction.
The last footholds to scale are the small ink and color drawings by the Israeli-American, Dov Talpaz, that lead to his large oil painting. I found this language more familiar, also, as Dov and I went to art school together. We attended opposing camps at school, but I think we got the same heavy-handed ideologies. I like the small ink drawings better than the large oil painting, which although an arresting image, seems lacking in sensitivity somehow. There is carefulness to the color choices and paint handling that does not support the artist’s connection to the subject matter. I think I want more reality in the paint, and less reality in the image: More Joan Mitchell, less Edward Hopper. The energy in the ink drawings is better. These small works are moving, and I think would be even more so if the color---which seems disconnected from the image---were taken out. I’m talking about these works in formal terms, which makes me think they need to veer right altogether. They are intellectualizing a bit, whereas I suspect the subject matter has great emotional reality for the artist. It’s incredibly difficult to fuse formal structure to emotional content…so difficult that most artists stick to ideas…but here is an artist who I know is capable of doing it.
All in all, the strength of “Traverse” is that it takes contemporary work usually bolstered by commentary (contextualizing), and forces you to navigate it on purely ontological terms. Whereas some works prove more stable than others, it’s to the curators’ credit that it is placed in a way that invites movement. Despite the catalogue’s claims for connections between the works, I think the very allure of this exhibition is its bombardment of disparate mediums and approaches that forces you to reach, readjust, start from scratch, and hold on for dear life.