Akina Cox and Ariane Vielmetter – Another Self
Akina Cox’s Burning Witch video is installed to my left as I enter the gallery. Inside, street sounds fade and I begin to hear a religious-ish folky song from the video; the words are not clear, but the tune is comfortable, and the artist’s clear, high voice is distinctive and familiar. On the monitor I see an effigy, tied to a post (or stake) in a desert landscape. The effigy is burning as the artist’s voice sings.
Behind me on a shelf installed on the wall are placed bone and plaster tools – a slender pick, an awl, a triangular pointed thing that is shaped curiously like a screwdriver, a shovel, two spoons and a pointy spade: this is a sculpture by Ariane Vielmetter. “I suppose,” my mind tells me, “that bones are one origin of tools.” The bones are rough and used, while the plaster is white and clean, and the shapes in plaster are sanded and smooth. Looking at the checklist I see that the bones have been “composted,” and this makes me think of meaty bones being offered to the ground as food, and that the shapes would have been revealed (and made available to the artist) by this process of regeneration and digestion.
These two pieces, one by each artist, precede the exhibition proper, and are installed in an anteroom to the main space, created by a low-relief archway. Do the artists intend the pieces to be considered separately, perhaps as an introduction? Because of the architectural enclosure, Akina Cox’s voice seems to wash over Ariane Vielmetter’s sculptures, and the intimacy of this shared space in the gallery anteroom speaks to the mutual influence and support of the two strong characters in their time together at school. The song’s delivery is of a tune hummed or barely articulated while working, while using one’s hands, the song is absent-minded rather than direct, as though in a private language. It reminds me of listening from another room, or through a window as a woman goes about her tasks: puttering, making art, preparing food, caring for a child or a friend. Who is the effigy that burns?
The looped film begins with a close-up showing blue chevrons on a white painted background, and as the camera pulls back, this object resembles a gourd, it is turban-shaped: spherical, with a knob on top. (Later in the film, as this object falls to the ground burning, I recognize that it is paper, or papier-mâchè. On a second viewing, I look again at the initial close-up and realize that my imagined “chevrons” are angles and corners where white has not been painted over blue. The close camera then moves to a rough quilt shape, this is tufted and fringed, an off-white fabric which in a longer shot becomes a loose gown or uniform; it defines the witch’s body.
Now I wonder beyond the who of this burning witch, to other questions: What sort of witch is this? I think that through history, when we find such women, those who are called witch, sometimes the calling comes from inside, from within the woman, perhaps her spirit feels a calling – to some form of worship, to the making of art – and also that women are called witch from the outside when they do not fit in; perhaps it is something as simple as rejecting a mate, or living apart, or having a strong spirit. The first – the calling – seems full of wonder and of life and I can imagine a young artist might represent her own calling to art in this way. The second – the being called, or labelled – is horrible and is a rejection by society and a condemnation and often a death sentence. Of course I mean this historically, as when witches were burned at the stake, and also in our contemporary world where women still die of things (are killed for actions and inactions) that some of us have as rights.
I watch this film, the setting is beautiful in an empty desert field, the mood is contemplative and calm despite the violence of the burning, and the song is sweet. The quiet, and my reverie, are broken only by the anger raised in me as I reason through what I see.
Once in the main space I continue along the left wall, looking first at Cox’s Obertray Otherwellmay. Despite the title’s invocation of Robert Motherwell, I suspect this is an abstract object. A piece of heavy paper covers a wood panel, and through this a giant rubber band hangs from near the top to where the band ends at a paper and plaster knob. To me this looks active, or potentially active. The thickness of the rubber band looks muscular, as well as funny. This sculpture, along with other wall pieces, Anzfray Ineklay, Acksonjay Ollockpay, as well as two colorful mountain-shaped floor sculptures titled Oprah and Akina, don’t bring to my mind the people named, rather, as with the film, I feel party to a conversation in a private language; yet not one that shuts me out, for the pieces are interesting to look at and are affecting in their weirdness. I find myself engaged by them and I wonder what I do not know.
Remembering that the title of the show is Another Self, that I find little connection in Cox’s work to the other artists is no surprise – perhaps the pieces are more about Cox and her feelings about representation than they are attempts at representation.
Expanding my search for clues, my eye falls upon Ariane, a sculpture by Cox which serves as both a portrait and a totem. A pine cone has been disassembled and then glued back together in a slightly flattened and hollow form, this object sits on the floor in a corner. While modest in relation to the space, at close range the sculpture is tremendous; each pointy hard petal is glued to another and since it is hollow it looks light. Its fragility is belied by the pain it might cause to hold and watching it leads me to the sweet thought that it physically defines the nature of friendship: complex, assembled from many parts like moments, one wants to touch it, yet to grasp it too tightly would hurt me and destroy it. In shape it resembles Cox’s large Kurgan (def. a tumulus; mound of earth and stones raised over a grave or graves1) and both sculptures, as well as one not in this exhibition, Hat (2010), point to a continuing interest in mound-shaped enclosures. Where Kurgan contains hidden in its depths a video of the artist’s body and Hat in a performance contained the artist’s body as she traversed Elysian Park, Ariane remains open, perhaps as a space for friendship.
Why does Ariane Vielmetter’s Gloves feel violent to me? Brutal yet tidy. There was a made-for-tv movie when I was a kid, one with Elizabeth Montgomery playing Lizzie Borden as guilty. In the film Borden was a beautiful, unmarried young woman whose strict parents over-controlled what they saw as her tendency toward indulgence. In the famous murder sequence, which I recall as dance-like and silent, the dutiful daughter was either naked save for gloves, or she had donned cover-alls, she then hacked her parents to death. (In the second possibility, the actress would have been naked after removing the bloody clothes.) I remember the character removing bloody gloves (and possibly the cover-alls) and burning this evidence. Then Lizzie Borden lived happily (and tidily) ever after. Ariane Vielmetter’s Gloves remind me of this, of work done by hand, possibly brutal work – for making art is brutal – work done modestly and with care.
I visited Vielmetter’s studio at school and in it she had a piano, un-tuned and, she told me, un-played since a hidden performance in her first year. From this early experimental performance the artist learned that her anxiety wasn’t due so much to performing in public, but could be attributed to performing with even the knowledge of public awareness. I wonder about her Devil in the Details (tri-tone nocturne), 2011. This painstaking representation of aged sheet of music is the sort of masterful depiction in which sometimes the author can be said to get lost, to disappear into the craft of rendering. Similar to hyper-realism and yet different, in that Vielmetter loads her images with personal, cryptic allusions. The unfinished sheet music, which bears only a few notes, could refer to the artist’s hesitance at playing the piano, and also might describe the melancholy yet hopeful moment in one’s life when one recognizes both how much, and how little one knows of the world, a time of passage from youth to adulthood. I think the agedness of the sheet music is a key, I think that the artist’s personal history is indicated and also the potential history of the object, I think of the hands that might have touched such paper as analogous to the artist’s hand laboring over their task.
When I carry this sense of history with me to other pieces, I suspect that many of the objects she has drawn and painted have pasts, of their own and in common with the artist. I know that Vielmetter bakes bread, for food and also sometimes for sculpture and performance. I think that the repetitive work with living dough and an oven can be a meditation on creation, and it can be nourishing, and frustrating. Bread is sort of the banal on a heavenly order, and this consideration of the banal, of common things seems natural to the artist.
We have from Ariane Vielmetter, in a recent essay on this site, “I think that realism, both in art and in literature (…) pictures an alternate reality so life-like that we can’t help but see in it a reflection of our own condition. In this way, realism has something of a shelf life – it is very much a product of its time, and it is at its most potent when it is most relatable. An 18th century trompe l’oeil still life becomes a less comprehensible testament to reality as time passes, not because its flowers and fruits begin to rot, but because the cultural context in which it was painted shifts, ages, and permutates. The still life’s relationship to reality is like Dorian Gray’s relationship to his portrait. It is a reflection of a single moment, frozen in time and spared from decay, but loaded with history underneath the thin veneer of its surface.”2
Vilemetter’s painting Sparrow (after Chardin), 2012, touches, in fact sits on, the ground. The media are called out as “gesso and watercolor on found board,” and I wonder about the foundness of the wood. It is marked, by some mischance or for an unknowable reason; in one place a line is incised into the surface and in another an area of surface is scraped away. Both of these scars are slight, yet each mark alone would be reason to reject the wood as a material for making art were it not for the artist’s interest in materials with a history. I am told also that the sparrow is a found object that has been painted after the manner of Chardin. This is surprising, for my first thought was that the young artist was copying an admired master. It is interesting that instead she is fitting Chardin’s conceptual structure of hanging game into her own life. She elides the notion of the hunt and she replaces it with reverence (for the sparrow, for things found, for the mortal, and for the less than perfect).
Setting this work of art on the floor draws my attention to the ground on which I, and the painting, stand. I sat on the floor in front of it and looked closely, as a reward I could appreciate close-up the wildness of the sparrow, and I also found dust and foot prints and hair on the floor. Art and life were mingled and I had no choice but to acknowledge the connection. “The floor is fertile ground for a painting. I don’t necessarily mean the floor as a site of production, I mean the floor as subject. It sits like a skin between the buried and the walking. It carries the scuffs, filth, and dust of attrition and of abandonment. It is a surface that records movement, contact, erosion, and repair, and provides a stage for the small and large dramas of everyday life. The floor is a reference point in our perception of perspective, and its presence in painting is a rather bold acknowledgement that painting, too, extends into the realm of the everyday.”3 Vielmetter used these words to open an essay on painters of floors: Herakleitos, Silvia Plimack Mangold and Julia Fish. I think this painting Sparrow (after Chardin) must be seen both as an homage to the work of those artists as well as a statement of intent: the ground beneath our feet, the bread in our hand, the things which have seen life and have been marked by life have interest and meaning, and when used in art they carry this meaning with them and so they broaden and bring depth to the artist’s practice.
lWikipedia, Kurgan, page was last modified on 5 November 2012 at 11:09.
2On realism as a fiction and as a useful tool, Notes on Looking, September 12, 2012
3Reverence and quiet grandeur: Ariane Vielmetter writes of the floor, Notes on Looking, December 31, 2011
Akina Cox and Ariane Vielmetter, Another Self, Marine Contemporary, October 20 – November 24, 2012 http://www.marinecontemporary.com/index.php