VIJA CELMINS, LILIANA PORTER, MARTIN PURYEAR, KATE SHEPHERD, and KARA WALKER
June 10 – July 22, 2021
Krakow Witkin Gallery
Featured Artists: VIJA CELMINS, LILIANA PORTER, MARTIN PURYEAR, KATE SHEPHERD, and KARA WALKER
Vija Celmins’ “Untitled (Web 3)” is a drypoint and etching of a spider’s web. Its imagery is sourced from a found photograph, not from direct observation of nature. The question of the ‘original’ image (is it the spider’s web, the photo of the web and/or the work of art?) is furthered by the artist’s ambiguity, reusing photographic sources across numerous works of art, and creating variations on a theme. As for the process of this imagery, Celmins built it up in layers, and then did as much with erasure (drawing in reverse). The paper gets utilized as part of the imagery as brighter white areas of the web structure highlight the radiating strands of the web. Explaining how important printmaking is for her practice and its effect on her charcoal drawings of similar web imagery, Celmins stated, “I believe working on the mezzotint, which I found to be very bizarre at first – working from black to white – influenced all those charcoal drawings.”
The curator, Samantha Rippner, wrote of Celmins’ introduction of the web into her restricted range of imagery that, “Celmins’s webs arrive absent their makers: no obvious signs of life or its intrinsic expressiveness are visible. Yet we are left, ironically, to contemplate the product of a painstaking effort – by both the spider and the artist. This is because Celmins does not imbue the spider with iconographical significance, as other artists have done. She takes a more pragmatic approach, identifying with it as a fellow builder of structures that, although possessing an inherent constancy, are each subtly different.” (Samantha Rippner, “The Prints of Vija Celmins,” Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York 2002.)
Understanding the gestural potential of mark-making, Celmins subjects her media to scrutiny, considering their various effects and qualities, as well as feeding off the technical possibilities of printmaking. The physical construction of the work figures equally to the structure of the representational subject matter, itself. The question of potential meaning (social, metaphorical, personal or otherwise) hovers with the delicate strength of the spider’s web.
Liliana Porter’s new painting/assemblage, “The Light III,” uses the simplest of means to explore large topics. The piece is a cleanly and uniformly painted blue/gray canvas measuring 72 x 60 inches (183 cm x 153 cm). Attached, off-center, to this large canvas is a small shelf (fabricated from mere inches of frame molding), on which stands a found, minute, worn and vintage figurine of a train conductor holding a lantern above their head. The artist has casually painted highlights onto the figure and on the large canvas, as if the lantern’s light is actually reflecting off the surfaces and yet her technique is never trying to “fool the eye” but gives a viewer a way to see a scenario in both real-life and imaginary ways.
The small figure is surrounded by the massive quantity of dense blue/gray background. The scenario perhaps allows a viewer to identify with the “conductor,” to stay aware of oneself as the art-viewer and/or to be someone involved in the scenario in relation to the conductor. Maybe a viewer is an innocent child playing with the toy or perhaps is needing guiding light and yet knows that guiding light is more concept than actual thing…
No matter how one engages with “The Light III,” the visual, conceptual and emotional leaps that can occur show how much Porter has been able to use light and lightness as tools for seeing, feeling, understanding and accepting.
Kate Shepherd’s large scale “Falling Cards” from 2005 is an example of the artist’s long term commitment to the exploration of the interaction of line and plane. For this work, the red-hued background is divided up into multiple sections, each of a different tint. The “falling cards” were created by photographically documenting arrangements of string. In other words, the representation of two-dimensional planar cards was created by making photographs of three-dimensional (yet mostly linear) string. The lines and planes of the “cards” are continually interrupted by the different blocks of color, forever frustrating any sense of actual three dimensional space. Shepherd’s work is full of visual and process-based riddles, yet they are all in service of creating a dynamic visual experience that is both powerful and quiet.
Martin Puryear’s “Untitled (Navy Pier)” was made in 1985 to coincide with the “Mile of Sculpture” exhibition on Chicago’s Navy Pier (which extends almost a mile into Lake Michigan). One of the few works on paper with color that Puryear has ever made, “Untitled (Navy Pier),” like much of his sculpture, has figurative and abstract elements. These elements include a horizon, potentially a lighthouse (somewhat reminiscent of his sculpture “Shrine” from 1985 which was also in the “Mile of Sculpture” exhibition [and is now in the Panza Collection]), a long pavilion-like structure and figures with shadows. These hint at this being imagery of Navy Pier and yet architectural details are also subsumed in the wide swaths of irregular texture. A challenging balance between flatness of picture plane, abstracted seemingly figurative elements and geometric echoing between elements (even in the pictorial “horizon” at the top and process-based “border” at the bottom) are all hallmarks of Puryear’s renowned practice. “Untitled (Navy Pier),” from early in Puryear’s career, stands strong on its own and also hints at many of the themes the artist will explore later in his career.
Kara Walker‘s “Li’l Patch of Woods,” like many of her works, is ambiguous, open-ended, and full of friction. Walker uses stereotypes to illuminate hidden realities, both clear and confused. The reception of Walker’s work has been just as full of stereotypes and confusion.
• One museum describes that “‘Li’l Patch of Woods’ depicts an enigmatic birthing figure being discovered by Civil War troops (it is unclear if they are Union or Confederate troops, and any narrative remains murky and inexplicable).”
• Another states that this work is “set against the backdrop of the American South during the Civil War era.”
• A third states, “This sensitively drawn and etched print shows a desperate young woman who has run away from the slave owner. Forced by her birth pangs to pause in her flight from the armed searchers in the background, she looks back in fear as they pass close to her hiding place. The head of a child who emerges from her body takes the form of West African sculptures depicting birth, a theme commonly shown in Igbo culture but rarely, if ever, depicted in Western art.”
If one looks closely at the imagery, it is hard to entirely discern the age, gender and race of the birthing figure. Small elements give strong hints, but nothing is conclusive. The same holds true for the face of the “baby.” What is most visible is the compromised and vulnerable position the figure giving birth is in, compared to the armed assortment of buttoned-up figures carrying various weapons. Within the picture plane, there’s nothing definitive that shows it’s in the South or during the Civil War. Walker’s work utilizes themes of strength/vulnerability and agency/reception through caricature and through the inherent murkiness of the etching process (most often associated with European masters such as Rembrandt [further referencing another historical era]) to create an elegant surface for such a rural, rugged and tough scenario.