Old connections, transformations
By David A.M. Goldberg
Special to The Advertiser
Once, humans fully and directly engaged with the natural environment, and the landscape of our imaginations demonstrated that connection: gods, demons, hybrids and all manner of magical creatures walked the Earth and passed their stories, laws and rituals down to the present. Though Elizabeth Berdann, Judy Fox, Fay Ku and Allison Schulnick are all considered contemporary artists, their work at The Contemporary Museum forges strong connections with these old, deep currents of thought and vision.
Berdann works in assemblage and installation, united by the familiar genre of painted portraiture. Most pieces are executed at the miniature scale of found jewelry: pins, brooches, pendants and medals. These are things with intimate associations: gifts, memorials, heirlooms, and are therefore tacit acknowledgements of forces greater than the individual: namely, temporal.
Mounted and linked by long chains or arranged in clouds, grids and visual riddles, we find tiny portraits of moles, scars, gray hair, bound breasts, tongues, gagged mouths, navels, nipples, split ends, wrinkled skin, a thin upper lip, a pale paunch, an erection, fingers and toes ... Clipped, cropped, thumbnailed; anonymous and often wry, but not in the mechanized spirit of advertising or search engine results.
The traces of her fantastically accomplished brush and the intimate strength of her vision can be easily appreciated according to standards set in most art survey classes. But Berdann undermines rote seeing through a harnessed cinematic energy, as the eye moves from portrait to portrait, moment to moment, confronted with the flow of time through the sometimes graphically troubling phases of human life.
Allison Schulnick takes both paint, life and transformation to fantastic extremes in "Forest" and "Hobo Clown." Though technically claymation, these works are more like stop-motion paintings that straddle the acid trip and time-lapse nature film. Her creatures consume each other, experience life-death cycles, resurrections and decompositions, the stuff all human cultures were once intimately concerned with from Osiris to Christ.
But her expressive transformations are not about how flesh, muscle, bone convey emotion. Her bodies have mass and structure, but they are ambiguously supported and driven. Instead of the pristine textures and simulated skeletal structures of computer generated models, the flickering impressions of Schulnick's sculpting gestures form the living flesh of these creatures. Manual force causes colors to flow like water, and form to emerge from impossible depths with volcanic intensity. This is chaos, primeval jungle, Dionysius, shamanic shapeshifting, wild embryogenesis, and a simultaneous dream/nightmare of what beings might look like if feelings harnessed the energies of cancer.
If Schulnick and Berdann are positioned at extremes, with the former unleashing mythical versions of the powers that the latter approaches with much more "civilized" restraint, then Fox and Ku occupy the show's other two cardinal points. Ku's drawings are a compelling balance of accessible technique and arresting subject matter. The characters in her work evoke allegorical narratives from times when children and adolescents got into trouble with nature spirits, fairy folk and magicians.
Are they victims or agents of vengeance? It's hard to tell, as they set about their tasks of taking down trees, breaking horses and riding swarms of locusts with coolly engaged expressions. Something may have gone wrong, but it's not clear if their stories will end for the worse. Is the girl in "Swarm III" or the alarmed mermaid paying the price for abusing the gift of a god, or have they just discovered some supernatural power? The character in "Burden Lightens Piecemeal" could be eagerly awaiting the near-completion of the ravens' consumption of the corpse she drags, or contemplating her Promethean curse.
Where the psychology of the viewer "fills out" these waiting gaps, at the other end of the compass, Judy Fox's sculptures are most certainly not meant to be "occupied." Located somewhere between funerary representation, religious sculpture and high-end pornography, her sculptures engage the power of all three modes. As hybridized as any chimaera, sphinx or feathered serpent, they are based on photographs, actual models, and Fox's imagination.
Built from clay and steel, then layered with casein to provide a biological luminosity to the painted skin tones, her reclining Krisha-like figure and young dancer are astoundingly life-like. But it is the Snow White figure that will generate the most dialogue. She sleeps naked, as if carved for a pharaoh's sarcophagus, surrounded by seven representations of the cardinal sins apparently sprung from a collaboration between Walt Disney and David Cronenberg. Each (acting as guardian or scavenger?) is a biomorphic pile of folds, invaginations, fertility and reproduction; nightmarish and yet somehow comical.
Fittingly, Fox's work is in the bottom level of the museum, as if it were the show's subconscious, and it seethes with the appropriate conflicting urges and inhibitions. For in the end, Fox throws the psychologically active principles in the rest of the artists' works into full 3-D. Though humans no longer treat water, procreation, natural forces, death and transformation as artistic subjects in the way they used to, this show offers a powerful return to mystery, allegory and metaphor in place of obfuscation, academism and irony. Your trip up the hill will be worth it.
David A.M. Goldberg is a writer, cultural critic and lecturer at Kapi'olani Community College.