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Face to Face

From an objective standpoint, the collective consensus regarding the practice of Lithuanian-born-and-based Augustas Serapinas seems to be that it can be categorized in relation to themes of empathy, anthropology, the potentialities of space, and personal histories and mythologies. To some extent, these general observations are valid; they are not factually inaccurate. Yet Serapinas is not an artist whose work thrives when recognized according to precise motives or explicit associations. Neat boxes of explanation will not do.

I came to this conclusion after conducting a cross-Atlantic FaceTime call with Serapinas: me in Texas, talking to a grainy image of him in Italy, where he was preparing an exhibition for Apalazzo Gallery in Brescia. During our conversation, I impulsively chose to ignore the series of questions that I had prepared beforehand, their rigid format feeling stilted in comparison to the artist’s engaging explanations of his intricate projects, all of which he emphasized were influenced by basic human interaction and the spaces in which they are engendered. (I might note here that some venture to draw lines between Serapinas and relational aesthetics, though that comparison is cheap and easy when weighing the full capacity of the young artist’s endeavors.)

Discarding my list of questions was a spontaneous decision that later became imperative in understanding Serapinas’s practice overall. Our exchange was not a traditional conversation in which I gained concrete facts about the artist’s technique or ideas. Instead, it was a manifestation of his work itself, at play, in real time — a clever maneuver on his part which I only recognized days later while sitting at my desk, the recording playing back on repeat, trying to comprehend the nature of our encounter. I realized that our meandering, unstructured conversation was a prime example of what Serapinas seeks to achieve: creating a space for exchange, for simple connection, and the messiness that it entails. His work is so embedded in the act of personal relations that it proves difficult to separate the delineated artistic project from everyday experiences with other people.

Augustas Serapinas, Late Autumn in Magûnai, 2018
Augustas Serapinas, Late Autumn in Magûnai, 2018. Courtest of the artist and Emalin, London.

Take, for example, a 2013 project in Poland staged at BWA WARSZAWA, in which Serapinas approached an older man living in a flat situated between two contemporary art galleries on the above and below floors. Despite complete inexperience with the Polish language, he knocked on the man’s door, managing to parse together a conversation via their shared broken Russian. The dialogue resulted in an installation in which the man’s belongings were transferred into the gallery space and arranged in the same fashion as in his home. The man was frequently in the gallery watering his plants. Serapinas marks this early installation — only the second of his career as a formal artist — as the germination of his interest in personal interactions. In recalling the project and the older Polish man, the artist stated, “I want to say that I never claimed that he and I became really good friends. It has to do with communication and mutual respect.” This firm declaration plays with the blurry boundaries established within the project overall: while the two men maintained a social distance, the short-lived overlapping of their lives was simultaneously deeply intimate; the man placed trust in Serapinas with both his objects and that which they would reveal about him, and the artist, in turn, treated this information with care.

The intangible become more prominent in recent works, as seen in Vygintas, Kirilas & Semionovas (2018), presented in the Vilnius chapter of the recent Baltic Triennial 13. Though a physical installation was indeed on view, the fundamental essence of the work lay in the human histories infused in the art object’s physical components. Comprised of used wood and other discarded materials sourced from the defunct Ignalina Nuclear Power Plant in Lithuania, Vygintas, Kirilas & Semionovas is, at its core, about the six thousand Lithuanians who, under Soviet command, were forced to clean up the infamous nuclear waste repository. Serapinas sidestepped the work’s potential political implications in order to explore the emotional and interpersonal impact of this trauma upon the affected individuals and their families by considering the lingering intergenerational effects. With this particular event as a framing device, larger concerns emerged: first, how to navigate psychological and emotional closure, which then influences the way in which personal and collective identity is constructed — all of which are only further expatiated within the context of family.

As such, the objects Serapinas produces for gallery spaces are rarely a final product in themselves; rather, they take on a near-symbolic status. Like a souvenir, they are the representations of human experience and interaction, through which the tangible objects we see are a result — a memento, or a scar.

by Caroline Elbaor

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On The Rocks: Vasilis Papageorgiou’s sculptural deconstructions of Athenian nightlife

Vasilis Papageorgiou’s latest project is the result of free associations and personal research around various aspects of urban leisure time and subculture. By personifying and renegotiating the fundamental aesthetics of objects associated with late-night bar culture on the outskirts of Athens, the artist achieves a balance between fiction and reality, illusion and illustration.

“When the Sun Goes Up: Bar Stories in 3 Acts” at Hot Wheels Projects is the largest survey of this body of work to date, and is thematically structured around the latest and earliest hours of the day: the so-called “lock in.” In its initial presentation at the sixth Moscow International Biennale for Young Art, the work felt like a theater set, defined by a dramatic light installation that either overexposed or completely obscured each sculpture. At Hot Wheels Projects, the physical components of the installation are the focus of the collective experience. Lighting theatrics are put aside, and the viewer can clearly see Papageorgiou’s steel, marble, and leather deconstructions of bar accouterments, including footrests, stools, bottles, and billiard lights. Texts commissioned by the artist are pasted on the walls. As the title suggests, the exhibition is conceived in three acts, with sculptures scattered across the various rooms of this typically neoclassical Greek apartment, each functioning interchangeably to create a strong internal rhythm and overarching narrative.

“Where were you when the Berlin Wall fell? Where were you on 9/11?” asks Amitav Ghosh in The Great Derangement, questioning our associations between times and places, and our ability to measure ourselves against far greater shifts in geological epochs. “Will it ever be possible to ask,” he continues, “in the same vein, ‘Where were you at 400ppm?’ or ‘Where were you when the Larsen B ice shelf broke up?’”

It’s 6:30 p.m. on August 30, 2008. Atmospheric CO2 is 382ppm and it is six years and seven months since Larsen B calved. I sit on a wooden picnic bench above a black sand beach in Ilulissat, a town of some five thousand souls on the west coast of Greenland, 350 kilometers above the Arctic Circle. The sun will not set for many hours, and then barely. I am drinking a tumbler of Balvenie DoubleWood, and the jagged lump of ice that floats in it, which I have hacked from a beached iceberg, is fizzing.

The ice in my glass is far more ancient than that of the Larsen shelf, which, renewed each year, is at depth only a few hundred years old. My ice comes from the heart of the Greenland ice sheet and was laid down some fifteen thousand years ago, before flowing down Sermeq Kujalleq, the Jakobshavn Glacier, to the sea. Upstream, the ice does not harden due to the cold; rather, as new snow falls it presses down on the layers beneath it, compressing them into ice and trapping millions of air bubbles within its structure. This accounts for the stunning blue color of glacial ice and the fact that it fizzes when it melts.

The air released from this ice, hissing now through the malted waters of the Robbie Dhu springs, has been trapped underground for fifteen thousand years, since the end of the last ice age. It contains a mere 150 parts per million CO2: a different air, entirely, to the one we breathe today. The water that with mixes my drink comes from the deep past, from another time, and as it swirls and frets with new life, I drink it down.

— “On the Rocks,” a text by James Bridle, commissioned for the exhibition “When the Sun Goes Up: Bar Stories in 3 Acts”

As viewers piece together their own story via scenes left in a state of tingling inertia, two absent protagonists emerge: one who might have just abruptly left the bar, and the other a lone drifter. Each speculative action resists a social norm, and within the negated microcosm of the Solo Bars (2018) — with their forgotten marble lighters, molded bronze beer caps, and metal cigarettes — the artist’s treatment causes banal realities to come across as a film on pause.

The sleek curves of Footrest 1–3 (2018), combined with the show’s textural variety and almost mystagogic interpretation of events, creates an autonomously cerebral connection between the sculptures and the viewer — a sense of choreography or a feeling that one cannot entirely justify. We are walking in someone else’s shoes, but, oddly enough, they seem to fit quite well.

by Danai Giannoglou

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The Paintings are Dead

Matt Copson’s installation at the Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris, entitled Blorange, consists of three laser projections of animated birds. One flies gracefully before shards of light impale it in various places; another, seemingly alive and well, rotates on a skewer, intermittently collapsing into a horizontal line, and ultimately transforms into a vortex; and the third is still recognizably a bird, but comprised of cubistic geometric shapes, into which it ultimately dissembles. These animations are backed by a soundtrack consisting of a monologue by Copson read by a child, ostensibly delivered by the skewered bird, accompanied by various electroacoustic whirrs, creaks and squelches by experimental pop producer Felicita.

At one point in this monologue it is declared that ‘The fascists are dead. We are the fascists now! The paintings are dead. We are the paintings now.’ The first couplet might be understood as pure cavalier provocation, especially irresponsible in an age when Fascism is certainly not dead. It calls to mind Anarchist (2015), one in a series of sound pieces by Copson documenting scattergun prank calls across the political spectrum made under the guise of his alter ego Reynard the fox, in which he baits an anarchist bookshop by implying that leftists are jobless layabouts. The second couplet, on the other hand, is more interesting. The notion that painting is dead was of course one which occupied a lot of thinkers throughout the latter half of the twentieth century. Whether they marked its demise with Malevich’s square, Duchamp’s fountain, or Reinhardt’s monochromes, this conviction was usually premised on a teleological conception of art inherited from the once-hegemonic American critic Clement Greenberg, whereby painting had exhausted all of its possibilities.

Matt Copson, Blorange, 2018
Matt Copson, Blorange, 2018, installation view at Fondation Louis Vuitton, Paris. Courtesy of the artist.

While this question might seem quite antiquated now, I think this claim on the part of the bird that he and his two companions are paintings after the death of painting is telling in terms of something fundamental to Copson’s multidisciplinary praxis, even if not intended on his part. Greenberg often characterised his concept of painting’s medium-specificity in terms of artworks mapping out the essential conditions of the art-form. Yet, it is arguable that what he was actually talking about was painting’s capacity to do justice to particularity. This, I think, is precisely what Copson does in his work.  As he claims in reference to the impetus behind Blorange, ‘the bird is a symbol which has been co-opted by almost every political party and ideology I can think of. I want to give it autonomy.’ However, I would contend that in allowing the elements of his artworks to speak on their own terms and escape political co-optation, his work models order without inherited hierarchy, and thus has political import which belies its content’s flagrant lack of political coherence.

This is all the more remarkable for the fact that Copson so often skirts narrative form, a mode whose elements are usually only of significance in terms of an overarching story. Much of Copson’s work up to now has concerned the antics of the aforementioned Reynard, a character based on the anthropomorphic red fox from Medieval European fables. The most explicitly story-based example is A Woodland Truce, a play ‘performed’ by fake fur and polystyrene animal sculptures in the Serpentine Sackler Gallery in 2016, in which Reynard coaxes the other animals into a death pact from which only he escapes unscathed. However, Copson has elliptically told tales in many of his other solo shows. In Reynard Reforms (2015), a monologue accompanied by painting, drawing, sculpture and illuminated drums, tells of how Reynard repents his nefarious ways and grows a human leg. In Reynard Reprised (2016), Reynard’s decapitated head converses with his body, backlit by painted LED panels featuring various of his body parts. And in Reynards Fundament (2016), Reynard’s soul inhabits a massive meteoroid, his mortal form having ‘exploded in revolutionary disdain.’ In all of these shows, the various parts do not exist for the whole. Contrarily, the opposite is true, and the whole seems to exist for the parts. That is to say, the shows operate as constellations, in which each element maintains the visceral integrity of its particularity as an autonomous work, while at the same time gaining significance in relation to the other elements.

Daniel Neofetou is a filmmaker and writer living in London.

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L’origine du monde-Selfies: Sabrina Tarasoff talks to Talia Chetrit

Sabrina Tarasoff: Before I ask you about your process, can you introduce the subjects of your recent exhibition “Showcaller” at the Kölnischer Kunstverein? Nudes, cityscapes, flies, nipples in chains: Where do they find family resemblances?

Talia Chetrit: I suppose it is possible to divide this show into three parts which are seemingly in contrast to each other. The aesthetics and approach are very different, but the work is unified by its relationship to privacy.

The Streets (2015–ongoing) photographs were all taken from tall buildings in New York City and were shot through glass windows using a long lens. These numerous layers of interruptions between the camera and the many subjects who walk the city below almost abstract the images. No one is aware that I’m taking their picture, and everyone remains fairly anonymous. I like to think that I’m both respecting and invading privacy in a single image. In the Sex (2016–ongoing) pictures, I am documenting my partner and I having sex in a picturesque, natural landscape. I am tethered to the camera by a long and visible cable release. There is a sense that the viewer is implicated in the act. The third part is a more loosely grouped set of black-and-white images of intimate moments, for example Fly on Body (2012), which captures the fleeting moment of contact when a fly lands on skin.

The sex pictures, the street photographs, and the small black and whites are very different types of work, but once they are positioned together, I hope that one is compelled to consider the dynamics of permission and intimacy. In doing so a triangulation begins between the body of work, the action of photographing, and the people observing the work. By positioning and contextualizing these bodies of work together, in close physical proximity, the process and specific intentions of each are called into question.

 

ST: Your last exhibition at Sies + Höke in Düsseldorf, “POSER,” repurposed photographs you had taken in your early teens, circa 1994–97. These portraits of yourself and your close friends hold some lackadaisical center, the centrifuge of adolescence I guess, around which other more recent photographs orbit. Bearing in mind that ours is a generation beholden to the soft idling of Sofia Coppola films, the Instagram aesthetic of girlish listlessness, all that diluted Edie Sedgwick-esque sadness idolizing the diabolical school of girlhood, we could probably talk a lot about girlhood and its co-optation in social media, how that relates to your image-making… But let’s start from here: How has your process and relationships to your subjects changed since you first started taking photographs?

TC: Of course, the way I think about images has changed, but the process and relationships to my subjects have not really changed at all. This similarity was articulated in “POSER,” where images I had taken in middle school and high school were combined with three recent self-portraits. My interest in reactivating the early pictures was to examine a teenage understanding of the representation of sexuality and an adult’s projection onto those same images. For the new pictures, I invited Corey Tippin, a prominent makeup artist within the New York scene in the 1970s, and we tried out a series of ideas together. As it turned out, this was not unlike the way my girlfriends and I had dressed up for the photographs taken in my teenage years. These images are a consciously constructed interpretation of self-image in front of a camera, in one case as a teenager and in the other as an adult. The intent, the references, and the relationship to ourselves — psychologically — and our bodies — physically — have evolved, but the dressing up and the posing remain similar. To have taken images from my archive and placed them into an exhibition twenty years later is a distinctive act that is as much a subject of the exhibition as the pictures themselves. At the time, those images were never going to be seen, but today those pictures would have immediately been publicly shared, and are an example of, as you say, the “Instagram aesthetic of girlish listlessness.”

Talia Chetrit, Ever Wet, 2018
Talia Chetrit, Ever Wet, 2018. Couresty of the artist; kaufmann repetto Milan, New York; and Sies + Höke, Düsseldorf.

ST: Where does failure come into this? In an Interview feature, you’re quoted saying that you considered your first exhibition a failure, and that it changed your thinking. Perhaps because much of your vocabulary overlaps with avant-garde photography and its formal elegance, your work often feels very calculated and finished. For example, “POSER” seemed to locate spaces (or faces) of intimacy in your youth and carry them into the present for reevaluation, which in itself might be considered as a reevaluation of what intimacy meant then and what it means now — as an affect, need, coping mechanism, fantasy, or something entirely else. There is so much margin for error in that, so much psychological murkiness. Does thinking about failure — such as past works that didn’t pan out as planned, or more to the point, photography’s inevitable shortcomings — help guide you through these spaces?

TC: In the Interview article you are referring to, I was speaking specifically of how I felt about my first exhibition, which was about ten years ago.

But, failure in the sense of vulnerability is something I seek to achieve. Sometimes imperfection is symbolic of vulnerability, and those intentional or unintentional flaws add dimension. For example, in the Murder (1997–2017) pictures that I took in high school, which were also included in “POSER,” I staged different murder scenarios with my friend. At the time I was experimenting with the boundaries of fictions, but what I like about them today is how flawed they actually are. In most of the pictures, my friend’s tightly laced-up boot appears to have been thrown off her foot. At the time I didn’t see this flaw, but I now see that mistake as a metaphor for the predatory situations that girls are forced to try and understand at a young age. I also allow for and encourage flaws in my work. I refer to the temporal aspects of the performance for the camera by showing clothing imprints and bra lines and often keeping the debris, like the clothing that was taken off and the equipment, in the edges of the frame. As you mentioned, these “failures” break down the fictions that are built in to the medium itself. There is a never-ending dialogue between fiction and the photograph as evidence.

 

ST: This feels closely related to problems that arise within the biographical format. As a writer, when stuck with the messy shape of a life and the slipperiness of writing, doubt can be entertained through speculation — through various accounts, through literary devices, even through the spaces of silence that come from subjects who are either dead or reluctant to share. What can be known about a subject, and what kind of meaning we can tease out from them, their expressions, are a difficult thing to convey in an image — and seems to motivate your practice. Photographing your family, covertly, or your friends; revisiting old materials; even in photographing yourself having sex with your partner. Biographers will often pursue their subjects because they are, in some aspect, unknowable to them. How does the “unknowable” within your subjects, or the impossibility of ever really knowing someone, inform your thinking about form?

TC: I agree that a subject is not knowable through a lens. But the presence of the camera both creates and reveals vulnerabilities in my subject (which is sometimes me), which can give access to understanding.

Sometimes it’s about setting up a situation in which my relationship with my subject is challenged in order to incorporate the camera. For example, in the sex pictures, I asked my then-new partner if he would be willing to participate. In some ways this was an attempt to challenge him and provoke an involvement in and a relationship to my work. There was also nothing at stake at the time, because these pictures could have never actually been shown to anyone. With that in mind, we were more engaged with the shoots as a performance between us and the camera.

The presence of the camera itself can also reveal an unknown side of the subject. An example of that dynamic occurred during a photo shoot with my parents. During the shoot, their interaction inspired me to videotape them without their knowledge. I only started taking the video because the photo shoot elicited a flirtation between them that I had not been a part of before. In Parents (2014), my dad is seen kissing my mother’s neck as she coyly asks: “Aren’t you glad I showered?” By revealing on video these in-between moments, when we were negotiating the pictures, I was able to capture a glimpse of the insecurities and shifting power dynamics that are inherent to being both in front of and behind the camera. In this particular instance, the parent/child dynamic was further complicated by the reversal of power.

 

ST: Of your 2015 show at Sies + Höke, “I’m Selecting,” Art Writing Daily described your portraits as “l’origine du monde-selfies,” which is a nifty way to account for how sexuality in your work happens through convergences between historical and present considerations of self-image. In many of the earlier works, like Crotch (2012), a triangular shape of pubic hair photographed as a sort of geometrical composition, or even in later works like Untitled (Bottomless) (2015), in which your legs act as framing devices for splintered images, sexuality seems implied through an abstraction of form. There is a noticeable difference between the work from 2011/12, which was more fragmentary, composed, and clearly “experimental,” and your current work, which is in a way more fluid and tactile. Can you talk a bit about this? Is it only a formal change, a shift in interest, or also a shift in your thinking about sexuality? Or just what modern womanhood is?

TC: I appreciate that you were looking so closely to notice this shift. Power dynamics, agency, sexuality, and the psychology behind imagery have always been an important part of my work. Earlier I was signaling to and questioning the history of photography and Surrealism as a way to start the conversation. Over the last six years or so, I have found that using the specificity of my own life — experiences, body, family, partners — is a way for me to challenge far more. I am continually reacting to my own work, to shows and to the sequencing of the shows; and trying to build upon, expand, and undermine ideas already laid out in my work.

Talia Chetrit, Girls (Bed), 1996/2017
Talia Chetrit, Girls (Bed), 1996/2017. Couresty of the artist; kaufmann repetto Milan, New York; and Sies + Höke, Düsseldorf.

ST: That leads me to another category of your work: the Celine, Acne, Helmut Lang… With an aesthetic surface that seems to so easily seep into the mainstream, how do you complicate, disrupt, or think through a commercial lens vis-à-vis your artistic practice? It seems really difficult to know what photography is supposed to do these days when the distinction between private and public is so uniquely murky, and image management and self-branding have become full-time jobs for some. I wonder, for example, what it would mean to slap brand logos onto some of the photographs in “Showcaller”: How would they change? Could Streets #4 (2018) function just as well as a menswear ad for the nouveau business casual guy? Or Untitled (Outdoor Sex #1) (2018) act as a sequence in the new Natalie Portman “Miss Dior” ads? I’m not saying this to offend or be facetious, but to consider what happens to an image — and how easily — when it slips between what T.J. Clark has called “notions of virtuality and visuality?”

TC: There’s very little that separates an Instagram photo from an ad campaign from an artwork when the image is looked at on its surface level and in isolation. With a logo slapped on top, most images could function as a more-or-less successful ad. A commercial photo is an offer of sale and is a collaboration between a photographer, a client, a stylist, etc., to manage or massage a viewer’s perception of a brand. There is a directness and transparency about this that I appreciate. An ad is an end point or conclusion. An image for an exhibition is a starting point and is seen within a particular context, surrounded by a curated collection of other images, to hopefully begin a dialogue and encourage a viewer to delve into their own perceptions of the work.

 

ST: What about power’s relationship to intimacy? “Showcaller” might designate a lack —maybe reverie? — through its hazy distances. But your claim to authority over the images, the reminders of our complicity in their construction, make me think less about how photography as a medium works through those tensions, and more about how intimacy is forged and constructed through similar tensions. This may be returning to my first questions, full cycle — but what do you think? If we are to assume that a part of your pursuit in photography is to forge or construct intimacy, then to what end?

TC: Yes, this is full circle. That exhibition was titled “Showcaller” as a theatrical reference. A showcaller is the person who calls out cues, someone in an authoritative position but who ultimately is not in control. In this case, it was meant to point towards the performative aspects of the works in the exhibition. I consider this to be a good title for my work as a whole. The constructed situations and performances are controlled and staged for the camera, but so much of what then transpires can be seen as metaphorical and echoes current human experience. Conversations about overexposure and privacy arise; we are complicit in the permission to look, to analyze sexuality and to project our personal and cultural biases onto an image. With the pace in which the world of images is changing, it is important to critically unpack and analyze how things are evolving and what the evolution means.

Sabrina Tarasoff is a writer and independent art critic living in Los Angeles.

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“An Existence as Insignificant as a Common Housefly”: A Brief Conversation between Keith J. Varadi and Sydney Shen

Keith J. Varadi: Our society has continuously been plagued in some way or another. With “Four Thieves Vinegar,” your exhibition at Springsteen (Baltimore), you used the bubonic plague as a metaphorical and inspirational framework to deal with current and future sociopolitical and psychological issues. It’s a sepia-stained mindfuck with some stark religious tonalities. How is the plague relevant today?

Sydney Shen: “Four thieves vinegar” is the name of a prophylactic against the bubonic plague, fabled to have been developed by corpse robbers during a major outbreak of the disease in sixteenth-century France to protect from infection by the corpses they plundered. The simply prepared recipe of common herbs and household vinegar proved to be effective against the deadliest of pestilences, giving it a storied status.

The sculptures in the show are interpretations of folk plague remedies. In the show, there were four each of most of the “healing” sculptures, suggesting that they were for potential use by the titular quartet of thieves. The sculptures were hung on and around a Shaker-style peg rail that girdled the perimeter of the room, suggesting an agrarian, technology-averse setting that exists outside of contemporary society, while also unifying the various other anachronistic elements. Time is irrelevant, as this is about end-times — the end of time.

Sydney Shen, Urinal / Urine Sample Reed Diffuser Set, on view at Springsteen gallery
Sydney Shen, Urinal / Urine Sample Reed Diffuser Set, on view at Springsteen gallery. Courtesy of the artist and Springsteen, Baltimore.

KJV: A wide variety of materials were utilized throughout the exhibition. How did they factor into the holistic content and context of the show, stylistically and substantively?

SS: I have been preoccupied with Italian Renaissance composer Carlo Gesualdo for some time now. He is an exemplary villain, known as much for brutally murdering his wife and lover as he is for his visionary music. He was a man whose inner demons were so strong that the only way to quell his bouts of madness was to have servants beat the frenzied thoughts and emotions out of him. As quoted in my press release, one account surmised that these beatings were actually a form of physical therapy helping to relieve his chronic constipation.

Scent was a major part of the show and it was used to create sensory dissonance. It was in part a response to the unusual and dramatic melodic dissonance that characterizes Gesualdo’s compositions. The language of music is often used to approximate scent, so perhaps I was inverting this process. The manhole hooks and other items all bore fragrance in some way. For example, the hooks were coated with a solid perfume carrying the fragrance of clove, causing a tool once used to reveal a putrid underworld to smell like Christmas.

This sense of dissonance, and my idiotic propensity for potty humor, was further carried out with the “oil and vinegar” scent diffuser set. I wanted to cross-contaminate and entangle sensory expectations, so I made two distinct scent diffusers out of vessels formerly used to contain urine. I suppose the oil and vinegar bases for these two pieces make both olfactory and textual puns — oil and vinegar is dressing for a salad, a meal typically considered one of the “cleanest” things you can eat, made dirty (with actual substance and hypothetical piss) for the installation. Material lists allow the logic of my sculptures to continue to unfold. Exhibition texts that accompany my work usually augment and enhance the work in this way.

 

KJV: You told me that the chairs in the exhibition were hung upside down, with easy access, in order to be able to go down into sewers in the event that the pestilence returned. The morbid absurdity of this installation, and your description of it, made me laugh out loud, but upon further consideration, given the dystopian present state of the union, it’s actually not very funny at all. Do you have any overwhelming anxieties about the world in which we are currently living, and how did they manifest in this exhibition?

SS: This past year, I developed a constant sense of anxiety and restlessness. The awareness of inhabiting a body, and the limits of this physical body, of this paltry existence, are claustrophobic and panic-inducing. I’m always on the brink of existential crisis, and it can get so bad that any activity feels like a mere distraction from the ultimate truth of agony.

“Sitting in the sewers” is one of those confounding folk remedies for the plague that top every Funky Weirdest Dark Age Facts listicle. I found this idea of finding refuge in a descent to be a compelling remedy that could form the backbone of the show’s logic. If I had to summarize the installation, I would describe it as a medievalist prepper’s survival shelter.

Sydney Shen, Untitled, installation view at Springsteen gallery
Sydney Shen, Untitled, installation view at Springsteen gallery. Courtesy of the artist and Springsteen, Baltimore.

KJV: Some of the ways in which folks have attempted to remedy themselves of sickness — mental or physical, real or perceived — have been pretty trippy, right? Whether it be some elaborate scheme or electrotherapy, we have often made things worse for ourselves. Do you think we are naturally compelled to double down on shitty circumstances, or do you think that we — as individuals and collectives — believe that these are legitimate and appropriate measures to take when we are in crisis mode?

SS: It seems like crisis mode has become the norm. I received this suggestion on Pinterest the other day for homemade penicillin for “When SHTF.”

When considering what society is, one must consider what it is not. And it isn’t pathologized as aberrant and diseased. But what is wellness when society itself is sick? The contemporary outlook can be summed up by a preoccupation with wellness that transcends ideology.

How do individuals take fate — in apocalyptic times — into their own hands? What do individuals do (especially in the US, conditioned by the all-American value of bootstrapping and a lack of access to healthcare) when SHTF? I am fascinated by the matrix of abject, antisocial extremities that have become familiar strategies in response to healing a broken humanity. I don’t judge any of these responses though, as the reason I am so interested in them is because I am desperately seeking a solution, too.

Sydney Shen is a New York-based artist. In 2017 Shen mounted solo exhibitions at Motel in Brooklyn and Springsteen in Baltimore.

Keith J. Varadi is a Los Angeles-based artist, curator, writer, and researcher. In 2018 he will organize a group exhibition at Motel.

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Between the Waters / Cy Gavin

Upon entering the group exhibition “Between the Waters” at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, curated by Elisabeth Sherman and Margaret Kross, the first thing one sees is Cy Gavin’s The Future of Tucker’s Point (2016), a large landscape painting in lurid yellows, oranges, fluorescent pinks, and notes of Caribbean blue.

Made with oil, acrylic, and chalk on canvas, the landscape plays host to a black male nude. Centrally located, the nude sits facing sunny skies with toes dangling in water, his eyes closed in ecstasy. Half covered by a cloak of black fur or some other luxuriant material, the drapery elegantly adumbrates the ever-lurking probability of a shadow of the Veil à la W.E.B. Du Bois. He also appears blessed against the odds, unperturbed by a total lack of racial anxiety. Beach, tidal ponds, rock outcroppings, and palm trees hotly surround him, complementing his nakedness with an acid glow. Since the painting’s title claims to present a scene from “the future,” it makes sense to suggest that what we see here is an eventual return to paradise. By way of reversal, Masaccio’s fifteenth-century fresco Expulsion from the Garden of Eden comes to mind, in which Adam and Eve are shown exiting paradise in states of pronounced agony.

Cy Gavin, The Future of Tucker’s Point, 2016
Cy Gavin, The Future of Tucker’s Point, 2016. Collection of Nick Cave. Courtesy of the artist.

Gavin’s work sometimes recalls Renaissance portrayals of the nude, except for two major distinctions: that Gavin is alive for the secular twenty-first century, and that all of his characters are black. He’s a sensitive minder of history, in ways specific to his Afro-Caribbean American lineage as well as to the complicated, canonical mantle inherited by any figurative painter finding his way in the West.

His figures and landscapes volunteer themselves for our allegorical consideration, just like the nudes and pastorals of former regimes. Unlike these past examples, however, Gavin’s are done in psychotropic color schemes and are often titled to identify icons of slave-trade-era Bermuda lore: the ancestral homeland of Gavin’s father’s family.

Tucker’s Point happens to be a resort town on the island that Gavin visits once or twice a year, a place that leaves him with two or three mixed feelings. Gavin told me that he posed for The Future of Tucker’s Point himself, and so I can’t help but interpret it as a euphoric vision of the artist enjoying a climate of rapture, located in days to come at the site of his ancestors’ prolonged and horrific subjugation under slavery as well as their first introduction to America.

Expanding on W.H. Auden’s notion that art is perhaps best understood when one prioritizes a search for Edenic pleasure, Dave Hickey writes: “Our Edens reside in a world that we can touch, that sings in our ears and shines before our eyes — the only world that we can inhabit while living in our bodies with all our senses intact.” And so I am reminded of microcosmic Bermuda, a real-life island off the coast of North America, held in the hands, ears, and eyes of Gavin, where I believe he has sensed what paradise has been possible, thwarted, and yet may again be attainable, even only if briefly, despite the tremendous powers that be and those that have been.

Cy Gavin, Bather II 2018
Cy Gavin, Bather II, 2018. Courtesy of the artist.

Full disclosure: Cy is one of my closest friends and we talk about art, either his or mine, constantly. Somehow, however, I think I am able to bring an appropriate measure of criticality to bear on his work. I think this because of what Auden says about writers or artists writing critically about work that they love: “So long as a man writes poetry or fiction, his dream of Eden is his own business, but the moment he starts writing criticism, honesty demands that he describe it to his readers, so that they may be in the position to judge his judgments.” So, honesty demands that I describe the dreamlike satisfaction of knowing Cy’s work, regardless or because of the fact that I enjoy the pleasure of his company. Here goes. I think he’s an artist nourished by the act and sensation of painting, in touch with the land from whence he came, viewing what he’s become since then or there and responding in kind, unsentimental, blissful in spite of it all. The locations cited in his work as landscapes set themselves up as apparatuses whereupon he can enact the experiential thrills of applying wild color, texture, depth, and perspective, all while meditating on the historical significance or folkloric meaning of a specific site in the natural world. More essentially, Cy’s project comes down to a poetic exploration of idiosyncratic mark-making on variable surfaces, subdued and/or roused by figures comporting themselves as flirtatious avatars of a rich legacy, shaded by human misery, and yet reimagined with joy.

by Sam McKinniss

New Wave is a monthly column profiling emerging artists.

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