2015 Charlotte Street Foundation Visual Artist Awards Essay

10/24/2015 - 12/16/2015

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2015 Charlotte Street Foundation Visual Artist Awards: Jill Downen, Rashawn Griffin and Misha Kligman
Erin Dziedzic, David Cateforis and Kelly Shindler

Jill Downen: The Approach

Jill Downen’s installation Threshold is part of an ongoing body of work she has created in service to her memory of when lightning struck her childhood home, and its lasting structural aftereffects. The explosive lightning current caused the “skin to peel away,” exposing “the bones of the house,” wood, pipes, plaster, and wires.[i] Downen excels at engaging space in a way that is simultaneously subtle and impressionable, extensive yet seamless, and is able to synchronize a firm framework with a bodily softness. Amidst these dialectics in Threshold Downenexplores a world of perception, of sensation, and experience activated by an installation of three interconnected components, ushering in new planes and surfaces that expand the phenomenology of the manner in which viewers approach her environments.

A reinstalled work that has been modified for this exhibition, Inscribe, is an undulating line of molded plaster that extends outward from the wall and snakes from floor to ceiling. The serpentine form evokes the shape of a lighting bolt, emphasizing the permanent mark that Downen’s childhood memory has inscribed on her work. On the adjacent wall, Downen customized the lower left quadrant where a window cuts into the gallery for her work Membrane a multi-paneled, mixed-media violet painting on watercolor paper. Membrane hangs horizontally just a few inches above the floor, where a sliver of natural light creates an illuminated bar just below the monochromatic painting like a new horizon. Lastly, Rejoinder, a sixteen-by-four-foot gold leafed sheet of clear acetate vertically bisects Membrane and floats parallel to Inscribe.

Rejoinder acts as the pivotal element in the Threshold installation. Its malleable surface sways, responding to the movement of air in the space. The delicate gold leaf catches Membrane’s violet hues glimmering across its surface, while tiny exposed cracks where the golden flecks have fallen from the clear surface allow light to permeate the underlying acetate. As viewers advance toward the reflective wall of gold, blurred outlines of the surrounding world are cast back as distorted shadowy forms. In passing by the crease of the golden acetate formed by oscillating air in the space, our own out-of-focus body is abruptly slowed down, and for a brief moment we pass by an impression of ourselves. This slight drag in time, a tear in our present temporal moment, makes us acutely aware of our own trajectory in the space.

The arrangement of Threshold activates the gallery space in a dramatic departure from traditional laws of one-point viewing perspective. Instead, the trio of works coalesces into a temporal experience beyond our perceived physical world, illustrating the activation of space as described by minimalist artist Stephen Antonakos (1926–2013) which “involves the senses, including the kinetic sense, the mind, the emotions, the imagination—really finally a pure sense of being.”[ii] French phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1908–1961) suggests that “we must try to understand how vision can be brought into being from somewhere without being enclosed in its perspective.”[iii] Ultimately, it is the viewer’s cadence toward and amongst the works and his or her own rhythm and gaze which activate the spatial possibilities of Downen’s newest work.

Erin Dziedzic is curator and head of adult programs at the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art in Kansas City, Missouri.

Rashawn Griffin

“Frame” is a word rich with multiple meanings.  The noun can denote, among other things, a constructional system giving shape or strength; an open structure that admits or supports; an enclosing border or bordered area; or a limiting set of circumstances.  As a verb, it can mean to formulate or draw up; to construct by fitting together the parts of a skeleton; and to enclose within boundaries.
All of these definitions are relevant to a deep appreciation of Rashawn Griffin’s engrossing installation.  Framed within the Artspace’s ground-floor back rooms, Griffin’s work features a free-standing, rectangular structure whose 7’ 4”-high walls are covered with plexiglass mirrors.  Conspicuous vertical seams between the mirrors draw attention to each as a separate reflecting frame.  Flush with the south wall of the gallery, lush with solid grays and blues accented by a column of vivid scarlet, is an 8’ x 36’ composition of stitched-together, loosely rectangular bands of fabric stretched over frames – a sewn color-field painting.  Extending diagonally across the space above eye level, two taut cables scribe dynamic lines to create aerial borders.

Punctuating the opposite wall to the north, framed rectangles of green pool-table felt comprise a wall pierced by an open door frame – a portal to a 10’ x 15’ room whose back wall is covered with safety orange fabric.  Sunk within the orange field is a quartet of small, vertical, framed art works.  Identical in format, three are enigmatic, spare paintings bearing fragmented figurative imagery; the fourth is a glass box, its front pane whimsically collaged with old-fashioned illustrations of men’s hats, spatially aligned with cut-out illustrations of human and animal heads floating on the back pane amidst scattered paint strokes and various small objects and materials.

We may easily lose ourselves within the frame of this beguiling and aesthetically generous mixed-media work, but elsewhere we are made highly aware of our physical presence within Griffin’s installation.  We see ourselves and others reflected in the surfaces of the mirrored structure.  Around the back, we discover that it frames a room, and pass through its open door into a black-vinyl lined interior where we become conscious of our bodies occupying a close, dark space divided by a few partition walls.  On the floor in the back corner more aesthetic pleasure beckons: electric light, muffled behind a fabric scrim, changing every few seconds from blue to purple to green.  Contemplating these soothing colors we may again become unselfconsciously absorbed.
On the wall near the installation’s entrance/exit hangs another small, vertical, mixed-media work. Within the glass-fronted frame, a torn piece of paper bears a few faintly drawn finger-like forms and these handwritten words: “I can’t do this, who knows what will happen? People depend on me.”  The initial I is scribbled over, intensifying the text’s plaintive tone.  What does it mean and how does it relate to the rest of Griffin’s installation?  We must each find our own answer, from our own frame of reference.

David Cateforis is professor of Art History at the University of Kansas.

Misha Kligman

There is an ambivalence to Misha Kligman’s art particularly well suited to whatever he paints. From early allusions to the Holocaust and geopolitical despotism to memento mori and indeterminate landscapes, his swarthy canvases maintain a somber critical distance that befits their futile task of depicting, or at least addressing, historical trauma and our unfortunate penchant to forget. Kligman’s works brood over their own inadequacy through bruised palettes, flat picture planes, and an often aggressively large scale (measuring as large as 6 by 7 feet).  When they do feature a figure, its contours are never fully defined, receding instead into the background to produce a ghostly effect. Even landscapes, which have become the primary focal point of Kligman’s practice over the last several years, exhibit trepidation. A series of Untitled landscapes from the Threshold series (2014) collapses into near-abstraction, their marks sanded down into dedifferentiated color fields of black, purple, red, and yellow.  It comes as no surprise, then, that recent works have featured bridges, rafts, staircases, and railroad tracks, among other signifiers of passage and transition. For Kligman’s is a restless practice in continual flux. It questions the potential for an image (and therefore a painting) to ever cohere in its address of the ineffable.

More recently, Kligman’s work has marked a shift from the external world into an altogether more personal space. He has taken up this subject before, albeit from a historical prompt—the artist grew up in Kazan, Russia, and emigrated to the United States with his family when he was 17, settling in Cleveland upon arrival. His early works in the Mouthful of Silence (2009) and Scent of Time (2010) seriesconfronted the legacy of historical trauma, a subject that held personal resonance for the artist and his family. The landscape paintings in the Threshold (2013) and Without (2014) series that followed also connect to the notion of bearing witness. In this sense, they recall the work of Anselm Kiefer, Sally Mann, Richard Mosse, Zarina Bhimji, and others who imbue landscapes with a charged sense of remembrance.

Kligman’s new paintings for the Charlotte Street Foundation Visual Artist Awards bring figure and landscape together, juxtaposing these visual strategies to articulate a number of formal and conceptual tensions. Drawing from the artist’s own experience of becoming a father, the paintings play on the push-pull of aloofness and sentimentality in the recognition of one’s own mortality that accompanies parenthood. Two of the works feature part-objects—a pair of hands, a pair of feet—while the other two present full portraits of a woman and a boy (the artist’s wife and young son), their faces turned either fully or partially away from the viewer. To make them, Kligman worked straight on the canvas, painting in part from photographs he had taken. The immediacy of such direct painting is palpable in the sketchiness of the landscape-backgrounds. Here, landscape for Kligman is no longer a primary narrative or thematic device but rather a classic foreground/background painterly strategy to hold, or perhaps catch, the floating figure. The final works, suspended in a state of unfinish, are brazenly awkward. Hands grasp, feet inch forward, a woman looks toward the future, a boy dreams. Each elicits the space of memory. Commenting on a recent body of work, Kligman offered that his paintings “are hopeful in a sense that maybe a painting can be more than an object but a kind of place where the past and future collide, in the process revealing that which is most hidden—our present.” The works in this exhibition martial this hopefulness through an almost Brechtian pictorial staging that denotes a sophisticated art practice—and a life—deep in progress.

Kelly Shindler is Associate Curator at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis.

[i] Jill Downen, in conversation with the author, October 4, 2015.
[ii] Stephen Antonakos, interview with the author in preparation for the exhibition Darkness and Light, 2008.

[iii] Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, trans. Colin Smith (London and New York: Routledge, 1945), 77.