Setting the stage, the Liverpool Biennial is spread among multiple buildings within Liverpool’s city center. A previously abandoned trade union center called The Old Blind School holds the work of seventeen artists, this blind school rehabilitated enough – outfitted with electricity – to form the central axis of the Biennial, a group show curated by Anthony Huberman and Mai Abu ElDahab. The artists in A Needle Walks into a Haystack come from outside, not from Liverpool. And in this sense, the Biennial is not a selection of the regional, but an exhibition that might draw outsiders into the northern industrial city. Outposts surrounding the central group exhibition include a re-hanging of the Tate Liverpool collection, a Whistler exhibition and various artists presenting solo works at locations such as a film center, a cathedral, and a research foundation.
Entrance ramp into the Liverpool Biennial
The Blind School is called this without question, the title of the building written above the entranceway in fading words. Varnished fireplaces scattered room to room in the school draw to mind lost, now usurped, uses of domestic space. The first floor of the Biennial opens onto paintings by American artist William Leavitt. Roller coasters and atomic clusters are illustratively depicted on top of suburban pastel homes, not unlike the colors of peeling paint on the walls of the school. The exhibition never loses sight of William Leavitt, one of the artists out of seventeen who reappears on every floor.
There are no people in Leavitt’s paintings of homes. Uninhabited, the paintings are speculative stagings. Flat rendering of realist images introduces an aesthetic to follow throughout the group exhibition – a realism into which fantasy is projected and announces itself as running commentary: Amelie von Wulffen draws a cartoon of her interior monologue with Goya as she navigates the art world; Peter Wächtler paints watercolor washes of the sexual liaisons of royalty as viewed through the eyes of a butler; Christina Ramberg animates drawings of jacket sleeves without a body, and binds disembodied body parts with cloth, in as many ways as possible.
The exhibition at first struck as downtempo, a kind of aesthetic camp, its artworks including color pencil sketches and video composed of the rehearsal of simple scripted lines – with time, those lines and garments gave way to a series of entranceways and confinements.
Installation of Christina Ramberg in Liverpool Biennial, 2014
Christina Ramberg, a Chicago Imagist also known for acrylic paintings, makes notational ballpoint ink-on-paper drawings. Ramberg turns pieces of clothing into a graphic system of symbols for specialized use. How many times can a belt be tied and untied, how many ways a person strapped to a chair?
Christina Ramberg, Untitled (It’s Napoleon), 1967, ballpoint pen on paper, 11 x 8 1/2 inches, image courtesy of Estate of Christina Ramberg and Corbett vs. Dempsey, Chicago
Enter a strong purple curtain and a projection of a planet. French doors open onto the moving planet that moves beyond the purple curtains. The raised platform stage, through which blows a breeze, is a set made from simple wooden construction, and therein plays a soundtrack of no known origin. It looks like the world as it is. Although the planet is larger and closer than it should be – as oversized as a film screen inside of a modestly sized home.
William Leavitt, Arctic Earth, 2014, mixed media installation with video projection and recorded music
On the backside of the screen, a projector sits on the floor, throwing the image of the planet without pretense to hide the planet’s source. Wooden beams are exposed from the back. Back stage is basely constructed, made only as well as it needs to be made. It is real life on rolling wheels, the invention of a film, or more like a dream that behaves familiarly without calling attention to the fact that it exists outside of time.
A preamble to this piece, a flatly painted dream called Arctic Earth, is an acrylic painting of the open French doors with drawn back curtains. The window-scape is a floating frame disembodied from a house, carrying along rock mortar, orbiting a planet. Subject matter is not far-reaching. Mostly, Leavitt’s chosen images are exteriors of single-story houses encroached upon by a roller coaster, a UFO. Outside the house, there is the spaceship we would rather see.
William Leavitt, Arctic Earth, 2013, acrylic on canvas
In the last room of the exhibition, Leavitt appears beside Marc Bauer, an artist who lived in a Liverpool hotel for a number of weeks, drawing the surfaces of an anonymous rented room. The one-room drawings reverberate with the first floor video by Peter Wächtler of a depressive monologue recorded over a video animation of a downtrodden rat climbing in and out of bed, walking across the apartment and back.
Like curtains that begin to move in a still hotel room, like a rat who occupies our bed, the tedium of looking at the same environment over and over again prepares a person for the appearance of an alien invasion. The trail of a rat in the house is a welcomed arrival of the metaphorical body most equipped to deliver a ranting. A Needle Walks into a Haystack is an exhibition of bodies seeking to be abducted by a character, to communicate through this abduction, in a place where alter-ego is the voice which keeps ordinary lives from being lived indifferently.
William Leavitt, Chaco Rising, 2008, acrylic on canvas, wooden stand, vermiculite, speakers
Work by Josh Atlas, Christopher Aque, Joseph Cassan, David Giordano, Lauren Spencer King, Andrea Longacre-White, Ethan Rose and Kristen VanDeventer.
Regards is located at 2216 W. Chicago Ave. Reception Friday, 5-8pm.
Curated by Mike Rea and Geoffrey Todd Smith.
Peanut Gallery is located 1000 N. California St. Reception Sunday, 5-9pm.
Work by Eleanor Ray, Greta Waller, and Gwendolyn Zabicki.
Comfort Station is located at 2579 N. Milwaukee Ave. Reception Friday, 5-8pm.
Work by Daniel Luedtke, Sarah Mosk and Nicole White.
Heaven Gallery is located at 1550 N. Milwaukee Ave. 2nd Fl. Reception Friday, 7-11pm.
Work by Loretta Bourque and Rob Bondgren.
Linda Warren Projects is located at 327 N. Aberdeen, Ste. 151. Reception Friday, 6-9pm.
The work of Chanel Von Habsburg-Lothringen speaks of violence and abjection through the trauma of abandonment. Using photographic collage, she creates claustrophobic spaces to intensify painful experiences. Memory blends with filmic reference, blurring reality so the viewer temporarily loses their footing within the works, leaving them floating briefly like the figures collaged in the print. Focusing primarily on She’s Not a Eunuch! (Re-Birth of Venus) and Postpartum depression – I don’t want to do the nurturing anymore, one can see several correlations in the works, with an overall sense that what protects us most from pain and suffering may be the walls we put up.
Regarding the images at face value, we are presented with collaged compositions of the female body in actual, idealized and costumed states. The figures are denied a concrete spatial relationship, existing in expansive close ups of skin and hair. These images are further flattened through the lack of strong shadows, the abundance bright lighting and a minimalist color pallette. Impossible to ignore above all else is the repeated use of a plastic mask found at an arts and craft store that has been painted to match the model’s skin tone. This mask, in conjunction with two different wigs, disturb the scenes. While somewhat humorously, they are overall menacing, evoking terror in the domestic space. In Postpartum depression, the cheap wig spills all over the image, its wild yet fragile acrylic locks evoke Bridget Bardot or Jane Fonda after a restless night’s sleep, as shimmering cornsilk flows everywhere. She’s Not a Eunuch! features a shorter wig, which combined with the mask, immediately calls to mind Christine (played by Edith Scob), from the classic Georges Franju thriller Eyes Without a Face.
The title reference to eunuchs is not just of physical castration, but of a lower social status. As the Re-Birth of Venus, the role as goddess of divine beauty, responsible for both sexual and spiritual awakening, the denial of castration is met with a new order in sexual and spiritual awakening, one that may ultimately challenge a traditional viewpoint, yet may be more inclusive. A contrapposto stance with cream sneakers as a clamshell, floating over a sea of skin, caught by the current — the trail of stocking — adds visual correlation. All eight of the four figure’s feet float in space in Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, denying their grounding as in Chanel’s photographs. Likewise, a significant flattening of the work is evident: from Venus overtop the clamshell, the other figures appear right next to her in a line, the water extending upwards behind them instead of extending back, and the unreal meeting of the land to water, where the land attempts to recede awkwardly in two directions. This nod is not merely to one painting, but to an awkward and slow move towards full spatial perspective, one that acknowledges a transition in understanding as well as tastes, that insists on a certain adolescent stage that is crucial to development that should not be ignored.
The flatness of the image, coupled with the extreme close ups, are confrontational, brightly lit and without strong shadows to help distinguish contour, space or form. In this we are unable to look away or deny the abuses on the child by the parent, or ignore that baby does see, that the future self sees, recognizes and is still shocked. In this tightening of space there is little room for anyone, and so the child gets pushed out; they hide behind a mask to create a private space for themselves that aims to protect them and hide their pain, as pain is often punished with more pain.
Trauma is often revisited by the victim through some sort of reenactment. Often in photographs and film, we view restaging of events both real and fictional. Our ability to imagine an event that we have no knowledge of can be shaped through filmic events. As I correlated one filmic character to Chanel’s figures, another can be drawn from Lee Geum-ja (also a victim) in Park Chan Wook’s Sympathy for Lady Vengeance (2005), and again, Scob can be seen in Chanel’s photo Postpartum depression, as the limo driver inLeos Carax’sHoly Motors (2012), where Scob briefly reprised her famous role in Eyes Without a Face by donning a similar mask. A reenactment from a scene from a film could allow one to try to live out a situation, making it real, though it remains an encapsulated fiction within reality. If one cannot relate to the trauma depicted through events in their own life, the filmic knowledge of it may step in. It may be that the events we live sometimes seem so surreal that we correlate them to a film, possible to remove ourselves from them. Perhaps also are the ways we remember events, taking on nuances from various filmic scenes collaged together. This is one example of universal trauma, though it is imagined through the viewing of film. In this way, Chanel allows another entry point into her work, while at the same time calling to mind elements of art history. Which is why the relation to Eyes Without a Face is not just perfunctory: Christine was a victim of her father’s abuse, repeatedly inflicted on her physically and mentally, all the while claiming he was helping her, and that the abuse was love. She was a monster, but only through the eyes and actions of those who claimed to love her.
A second universal trauma, one that is directly experienced, is the abjection of the body. As the body excretes, exudes and decays, it fails our perception of the perfect human, one that is young, beautiful and immortal. Abjection is inherent in trauma, as the traumatic deteriorates and degrades its victim, lowering their understanding of themselves within the world. Trauma can displace the victim as to radically change the perception of the self, especially due to the severity. The lack of ground in the photos is a displacement through trauma and abandonment. Abjection in the photos also takes place in the skin, not merely through the nude body, but also through its whiteness. The mask, the baby, the stockings, cream shoes and blonde wigs are signifiers of whiteness: blending in, the status quo, innate privilege and authority; but whiteness is also demented, sinister and anxiety-ridden. Coupled with nudity, it seethes into a sticky underbelly, one guilty by association. It suggests a malevolence in how it swallows the space of both photographs, consuming the figures.
The Gaze is represented fairly straight forward in She’s Not a Eunuch! — she gives it right back to the viewer knowing she is being watched, coyly playing the part in a humorous way. In Postpartum depression, abuse is acted out for the viewer, but as the abused is the abuser, the gaze is also directed inward towards the self. The cycle of violence spins around forever within the claustrophobic picture plane, to be revisited again and again. The gaze stays within the image, and travels around it in a triangle, from the large close up in the background, down to the self with child, they shoot their eyes to the larger baby whose hair has been cut, whose eyes we can’t see, but its positioned towards the background close up. The format recalls countless horror movie posters from the 1960’s, both classic and cult, foreign and domestic. It is a language of conflict within the individual; the individual made outcast by the family or society. Beyond a lack of understanding, we create monsters through unconsolable differences.
To live new and become another is one possibility within the mask. Sometimes it merely hides one from themselves. In Chanel’s work, the most space offered in the images is between the mask and the wearer’s face. If there is any breathing room, it is here, in the gasping humidity of hurried breath where the world is contained, as everything outside of this is an ever tightening space of abject horrors replayed.
Chanel Von Habsburg-Lothringen is a recent recipient of the Toby Devan Lewis Fellowship. Her work described above was featured in “Tools of the Trade: Cranbrook Academy of Art 2014 Graduate Degree Exhibition”. She received an MFA in Photography from Cranbrook Academy of Art in May 2014.
Work by Lise Haller Baggesen and Noelle Allen.
Terrain Exhibitions is located at 704 Highland Ave. Reception Friday, 4-8pm.
Work by Luftwerk (Petra Bachmaier and Sean Gallero).
The Franklin is located at 3522 W. Franklin Blvd. Reception Satruday, 6-9pm.
Work by Gordon Hall.
Night Club is located at 2017 W. Moffat St. Suite 1. Reception Saturday, 7-9pm.
Work by Sara K., Tim’m West, Dirty Grits, Mary Fons, Cruel Valentine, Partic Gill, Chris Knowlton, and Nic Kay.
DfbrL8r is located at 1136 N. Milwaukee Ave. Performances Saturday, 7-10pm.
Work by Xenz.
Vertical Gallery is located at 1016 N. Western Ave. Reception Saturday, 6-10pm.
By Kevin Blake
Painting is alive and well. Thriving even. The number of young artists working with the medium continues to grow, and there is seemingly no apex in a market that places a premium on painting. Today, younger artists are finding ways to assert themselves within their communities at the onset of their artistic careers, and are maneuvering to situate themselves in a global art discourse. Andrew Holmquist, a recent graduate of the MFA program at the School of The Art Institute of Chicago, has hit the ground running. While he continues to develop his painting vocabulary through a plethora of mediums, the same old painting questions remain the thrust of his explorations. This is a good thing for painting–these questions could still use answers….or maybe there are no answers.
Kevin Blake:The figure plays a prominent role in almost every work, whether it be a painting, a performance, or a sculpture. Sometimes the figure is presented representationally and other times the figure is merely alluded to through a title of a more abstract image. Can you talk about your interest in the figure and how your multiple formats allow you to address this interest?
Andrew Holmquist:The figure can be a structure–an organization device that helps dictate where things poke out and hang from. I tend to get lost or bored or maybe uncertain about making a pure abstract image. Having the body in mind guides the decisions while still allowing for limitless variations.
Like you said, sometimes this results in a clearer depiction of a body and other times the body is implied more through a title than a limb. In those cases I still want the attitude and gesture of a figure, such as gasping, twisting, or strutting to be in mind. It’s more a personality than a person that is represented. Again, this is useful to guide the piece to a point where I can say it’s done.
The figure can ground the events of the composition and locate that action in relation to my body and in turn, the viewers. This should feel tactile–like you can feel it in your shoulders and toes. The events on the canvas start to glom onto your body and you can feel these slithering gestures touch and envelop your limbs. I want there to be a tension between the body of the viewer and the painting.
There is this powerful physical relationship with painting, however in painting, much of the event takes place in the viewer’s head. You animate it with your imagination. Sculpture activates the viewer in a different way in that it makes them participate in the experience by moving their bodies around in relation to its structure. In performance it’s no longer proxies for the body but the real thing. The trick for me is suspending this reality enough so that it’s not a specific person but another compositional element.
All of this sounds pretty formal, however, the body is not a neutral territory and it can bring with it political or narrative content that I am more or less interested in depending on the piece.
Also, sexy bodies motivate a lot of my thoughts and they help motivate my art too.
KB: When you mention getting bored with making a “pure abstract image,” what do you mean exactly? Do you see abstraction as an antonym for representation and thus, find yourself working in the “gap?” What constitutes pure abstraction in your opinion?
AH: I would have to think about it longer to give you an etched in stone definition of what constitutes pure abstraction, but what I meant is basically: as much as I love Sol Lewitt’s work I don’t think variations on the grid is going to be enough for me as motivation to make my own work. I would say something like pure abstraction comes from a system of formal rules where the resulting work points back at these rules rather than out to the world. Maybe there is another word that is more appropriate. When I think about “abstraction” it seems to imply the reduction or extrapolation of something else, something of the world into some otherworldly, plastic form. I think my interest in abstraction from representation comes from the slippage I feel between my bodily experience of the world and my mind or spirit experience, and how they muddy each other’s waters.
That being said, as much as I am interested in the figure I am also interested in playing with space, form, weight, balance, line and color – all of these things that in and of themselves are much closer to the “pure abstraction” territory.
KB: If Minimalism–or the products of those artists motivated by the parameters of formalist structures and the eradication of the author–most accurately resemble your definition of pure abstraction, do you think the insertion of the figure both literally and metaphorically creates an alternative category for what you are doing? Is there an emergent thematic movement happening in painting today that is yet uncovered or unnamed that you feel akin to? In your work I see the likes of Charline Von Heyl and Amy Sillman as locutors of a specific methodology for dealing with figurative abstraction. Do you feel an affinity to this type of work?
AH: I think for there to be an emergent thematic movement there would need to be some clear “father” that we were all trying to kill, and I don’t think that really exists anymore. There are so many influences and lineages at our disposal these days, and yes I am certainly influenced by the work of Charlene Von Heyl and Amy Sillman, as I am sure many people are these days, but the spectrum is too far-flung to ever get a clear through line. So because the figure mixes with abstraction in my work may or may not be the reason the figure mixes with abstraction in the work of other artists. I think it would be a loosing battle and an unnecessary one to rally for a movement.
KB: I would agree that rallying for a movement is an unnecessary effort and I’m skeptical that any effort toward such an endeavor would be fruitful. I think movements are identified by those who write the history of time, and when there are artists working with similar trajectories in the present, it is simply conditional. What are the conditions of contemporary painting for you and how do you situate your work within those discursive parameters? Or is painting so pluralistic that there are no clear conditions?
AH: I am tempted to say there are no universal conditions for contemporary painting, but that might be its own kind of condition. The choice to make paintings doesn’t have much pushback right now, which allows for so many people to do it without defensive energy wasted. I think what results instead is the need to differentiate your work from the rest, which is maybe another type of defensive position. How do I do it that you don’t?
I have found that addressing painting concerns in other mediums can be an effective way to chart a position on painting. To be able to make sculpture flat and paintings dimensional, videos static and paintings animated – exchanging the expectations of mediums can enhance the awareness of those expectations. It can be an opportunity to get perspective and more clearly articulate what it is I am after in painting than when I am down in the mud. What comes along with this is a self-consciousness of the label of painting and how it is being applied.
Certainly right now a condition for any art is acknowledging the image quality versus the experiential quality of the work. So much art is seen through the computer screen, and it is the work, no matter what the medium, that translates into a potent graphic image that will get noticed. An artist like Wade Guyton makes work that looks great online, which is essentially the only way I have experienced it save for one piece, but it also has a physical presence due to its scale and position. It transforms from an image experience into a painting experience. I think a condition painters face today is finding an effective and meaningful relationship between the image quality of their painting that can be experienced by many, and the physical quality that will only be experienced by the few bodies that track it down in person. In what way do you make people tremble?
KB: The way you address painting questions through multimedia seems like a generative process that feeds one another. This necessity, or compulsion, for artists to be multiplicitous in their practices is becoming more and more common. Most painters today are also dabbling in other fields-from sculpture to animation and everything in-between. Maybe this is a condition of art which affects painting. Can you elaborate a bit about your studio practice and how you bounce around from one project to the next?
AH: I like to have multiple projects in progress at the same time. I get going on one thing and notice that the grass looks greener on that other thing, and after a while the first thing starts looking green again. This started a while back with working on paper rather than canvas as a way to loosen up. Paper didn’t have the same pressure and seemed more receptive of funky material choices. Grad school got me playing around with this material exploration off the wall entirely, working in installation at first, and then more discrete sculpture. This ended up turning into sets, props and costumes for videos that looked like my paintings. All the while I was also working on comic books and prints, which took the themes of my other artwork but presented them in a more direct way.
There may be different audiences for different mediums, which I think is a strong potential of working in this way, but I also feel that there really is unification between these seemingly disparate forms. Seeing the same content take different shapes helps me and I think would help the viewer stay interested and surprised. I think the honest benefit of working in this way is that I get to leap into realms like video and performance that I have very little grasp on and force things to happen. I don’t get to rely on elegant tricks that I’ve picked up in painting. What I’m excited about right now is bringing a little bit of that ham-fisted but excited quality back into my paintings.
KB: I’d like to hone in on the idea of painters having a bag of tricks or particular sets of learned painting behaviors. I too believe that it is important to eradicate those behaviors as soon as they become too familiar. It sounds like your leaps into other media help you to identify those repetitive decisions, but also to forge new modalities in painting. Where do you think this need to constantly challenge the familiar comes from? I think of Morandi as maybe the antithesis of this idea-an artist who saw the merit in a mastery of a singular vision.
AH: One possibility is that it is the drama and excitement of discovering something new. Some of my most successful paintings had a “oh shit I just ruined this thing” moment to them, only to be salvaged miraculously by some unexpected move. What I love about this is the messed-up final product that has traces of what I had in mind but is so unlike that initial vision that it takes on a life of its own. Maybe the need to constantly challenge the familiar come out of the desire for this shock of what just came out of you. I’m sure Morandi felt this shock too, but his dynamic range is much more narrow and the surprises are more subtle.
I think a part of it is also the fear of being pigeon-holed. I have a repeating brushstroke that’s larger than life and ribbon-like in many of my paintings. I like it because it suggests so many things at once–the gesture of my hand, illusion of speed, illusion of form and space, and can stand in for a myriad of things–but it might loose it’s interest for me. I would hate to feel pressure to keep making something that doesn’t feel right anymore just because it’s what people assign to my name.
I think this fear can be productive. In my case I am thinking about making work that is clearly mine that doesn’t have that key ingredient, but I think it would be a mistake to get rid of something that I like just because it shows up often. Or maybe it would be better to eradicate it like you suggest for the sake of letting new leaves catch the light. For me right now it’s easier to eradicate these comforts by leaping to other media where the familiar tools are no longer at my disposal.
KB: What’s on the docket for your immediate future and where will your work pop up next?
AH: This is probably the worst question to ask a recent grad student leaving art school. I say that with a laugh because I had very little empathy for friends in this situation in the past, but now that I’m living it I wish I could turn back time and slap my former self in the face any time I naively asked someone this question. And I don’t mean to turn this on you at all, this is a great question for most anyone, just not someone who just graduated with their masters degree in fine art. That’s mostly a joke, seriously though…
This is a transition period that is equally exciting and terrifying with very little grey in between. I do have some art projects on the horizon, which I’m looking forward to. My work is currently being featured in a new program called “Open Office,” a biannual group exhibition at United States Artists new headquarters in Chicago that was facilitated by Gallerista. I will have copies of my new 24-page comic book “Connections” for sale at Bergen Street Comics in Brooklyn and on my website in the very near future. I am in talks with Carrie Secrist Gallery to put on a casual summer show featuring my video piece from the SAIC MFA Show as well as an artist talk, which will take place in July. I was just asked to be involved in a group show about abstraction from Chicago which will be at Nebraska Wesleyan University in Lincoln this October and has a killer lineup of artists that I’m honored to be listed among. I will also have work in the Carrie Secrist Gallery booth at EXPO Chicago this September and in Miami in December. Besides that I am looking forward to making work with fewer voices in my head that is as selfish and indulgent as I can imagine.