Simone Montemurno, “When You Sign Your Name,” at metro pcs
The gallery feels intimate; a diffuse saffron glow softens any hard edges. This effect is created by a false fabric ceiling suspended below fluorescent fixtures that remain from the room’s original purpose as a small office. A wood paneled wall has been installed which blocks the storefront windows from the main gallery space. In the small anteroom before this wall, and adjacent the entry, a desk holds an artist’s book, this is filled with photographic images in the manner of a notebook, or a sketchbook. (Source Arrangement Partial Archive 2 (It’s A Photograph), 2013) Above this display hangs a small, oval painting which shows the corner of a table in the artist’s studio, and on this pictured table are some tools of the artist: peculiarly fat-handled paint brushes and blue archival tape; the brushes are DIY “good grips,” made to accommodate an injury to the artist’s wrists. (Inventory Painting #7, 2013)
In the room beyond are two large paintings on panels, these are full scale self-portraits, and they lean against opposite walls; on the wall between the dyptich hang six more small tondos; similar to the painting near the entry, they depict still life vignettes from the artist’s studio.
The warm, saffron light and intimacy of the anteroom continue throughout, and my initial experience of the exhibition feels different from one’s usual cold – or at least distanced – gallery experience. Montemurno’s When You Sign Your Name invites a consideration of art that is objective and also engaged; the work calls to my heart as well as my brain. Looking around the gallery, I feel the sensual anticipation and intellectual curiosity of being in an old library.
The two women in Simone Montemurno’s full-scale double self-portrait (Self-portrait of the Artist (Mirrored View), 2012-2013) face each other across the room. By turns, each holds my gaze closely, eye to eye; I am also caught between them. One of the mirrored pair stands very straight, in profile, with her arms at her sides. On her face is an imperious, indifferent look. The predominant thing about her, other than her bearing, is the lovely, deep blue of the smock or robe that she wears. Because I have been thinking of libraries, and of books (and of the manner in which I understand books, which is through my imagination), looking at this woman in blue I remember my imaginary vision of Catherine de Medici from reading history: I think of Catherine’s rigor and her grace.
Across from this painting, its partner leans against the south wall of the modest-sized gallery. In this painting the artist, or the character she is creating, stands in the same room as before, still surrounded by her household goods. Although these domestic objets are the same as in the first painting, here they are rendered differently, and I am reminded that perception is a function of time and of one’s emotions. This second woman is stepping forward, and slightly bending, in her hands she holds an open wooden case, like a Sunday painter’s traveling box, but the case is clean and empty; it is lacking tubes and brushes and evidence of use. I think that the woman in this painting approaches the viewer with trepidation: she has not the confidence of my imagined Catherine. Here she has something to offer that is important to her, and she is uncertain of her reception.
In speaking with Montemurno, I learned that she was thinking of historical paintings that she loves when she conceived this exhibition, and of scholar Ruth E. Iskin’s 1995 essay Selling, seduction, and soliciting the eye: Manet’s Bar at the Folies-Bergere, which contended that Manet’s painting could be understood in the context of the then novel expansion of consumer – and observer – culture to include the larger population beyond aristocratic and upper-middle class men: meaning that women and working people and others than the demimonde might be boulevardiering and peering in windows at shop displays and selecting from among bottles displayed on counters, for instance. This expansion was not due to a sudden democratization of culture, rather it is that business people had learned that passersby could be tempted into a purchase by displays of glittery, precious-looking consumer goods; displayed goods which they could touch and hold and consider without any investment. As businesses expanded the availability and the allure of these opportunities to look and to purchase, potential consumers learned to use these public displays as distractions and props, as tableaux in which they could enact their personal theater of socialization. As a painter, Manet feared this turn of events: art, a thing which requires associative powers, intellectual and emotional legwork, and time, is powerless before a crowd which has been trained not to delve too deeply into what they see, and which is more concerned with the consumption of commercial goods that are immediately available, that are disposable, that are passive, and that flatter one’s taste’s and encourage self-absorption.
In this exhibition Montemurno has provided the viewer with access to several points of view: a shared one with the artist as a participant in looking; one’s own perspective, as an independent viewer; and also as one who is observed. She has counterpoised precious visual moments from her own life as an artist (still lifes upon which her eyes might fall again and again during the day, and so become invested with emotion and thought) with a romanticized portrait of herself (the artist) in the role of a transitive and regal emissary of culture; and then again rendered as a querulous shop girl who is offering forth a symbol of her craft. Putting Iskin’s proposal to good use, Montemurno offers the viewer the image of an artist offering her wares in the form of an empty paint box, knowing that she has wonders to offer, and worrying that no-one will see.