Scene, Hold, Ballast
SculptureCenter, Long Island City
January 15 - March 19, 2012
Scene, Hold, Ballast features new works by Maljković and Skaer that further explore affinities and correspondences in their respective practices. In an ongoing series Temporary Projections Cycle, David Maljković's retrospective mode of tracing and negotiation is turned toward his own studio practice, its history, and imagined futures, including new works in film, painting, and sculpture. And Lucy Skaer continues her transformation of existing artifacts and architecture with a new 35mm film, a photographic series and related sculptures. Both artists have repeatedly explored what it means to inhabit and give spatial contour to their references.
Scene, Hold, Ballast
All exhibitions are scenes. Imbued with what Freud termed the secondary elaborations we produce in order to make sense of the strange, shape-shifting images that occupy our waking and dreaming life, a scene can be thought of as that point in time and experience when something has been reached, given a spatial contour; a scene can be walked through or run backwards in the mind’s eye, held on to, and revisited. And yet the prompting gesture, image, or object within a scene requires an existing ground—a ballast that orients our encounters within it. Scene, Hold, Ballast presents new work by David Maljković and Lucy Skaer, artists whose respective practices share an engagement with sculpture, film, and what it means to inhabit a reference, to shape time.
At the center of David Maljković’s work is a scenography that departs from his ongoing critical engagement with the legacy of modernism. Constructing speculative histories via diverted glimpses onto overlooked moments of past innovation, Maljković’s sculpture, collage, painting, drawing, and architectural mis-en-scene have often referred to the historical backdrop of socialism and the aesthetics of international modernism. He has continually mined a rift between the utopian aspirations of former avant-garde strategies, their frequently cataclysmic results, and the present moment as both spectral and in a state of perpetual renewal. Images With Their Own Shadows, 2008, for example, is set in the villa and former studio of the influential Croatian artist and architect Vjenceslav Richter (1917–2002), combining sound clips from Richter’s last interview with highly suggestive tableaux vivant of young people, open mouthed in their attempt to speak.(1) In this work, Maljković re-animates the sounds and imagery of a cultural past irrevocably darkened by history but made equally contingent through the embodied, participatory rehearsals of the present. As the curatorial collective WHW has recently written of his work in the context of the 11th Istanbul Biennial (What, How & for Whom is made up of Croatian curators Sabina Sabolović, Nataša Ilić, Ana Dević and Ivet Ćurlina), “Maljković’s collages, videos, and installations stem from the legacy of socialist modernism, where avant-garde is understood not as an exhausted ideological force, but as an active principle.”(2)
David Maljković, Images With Their Own Shadows, 2008
Likewise, in his video trilogy Scene for New Heritage, 2004-06, Maljković inhabited the site of Petrova Gora, a futuristic monument to Yugoslav partisans completed in 1981 by artist Voijn Bakić (1915-1992) that was left in a neglected, ruinous state following the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s. As with Richter, Bakić was an artist who broke away from the styles of Socialist Realism, in this case toward an expressive abstraction still tethered to figuration. Viewed by some as a “state artist” in service to the ideology of authoritarian Yugoslav leader Josip Broz Tito, the style of Bakić’s work is indelible yet open, citing a futurist impulse that is both nostalgic and self-aware. And while the history that Maljković’s work invokes is often fraught with such ambivalence, his work does not seek to redress or correct the past but rather insist upon its atavistic potential, “treating the past as pregnant with all the unrealized commitments to experimentation and collectivism beyond any particular case, making the present fundamentally open to the risk of new meaning.”(3) Indeed, for Maljković strategies from the avant-garde are held within a process of becoming.
David Maljković, Sources in the Air, 2012
This awareness has taken on a retrospective mode in Maljković’s recent work as he retraces his own practice, creating a fictional studio space that moves through past exhibition displays. Here, the studio is a place of perpetual drafting. With Sources in the Air, 2012, on view, collaged canvases hang from the exterior of an empty vitrine resting lightly upon trestles. Kept peripheral, the collages offset the encapsulated time and the enclosure of bound artifacts or fetishized art objects implied by the structure. A montage-like sequence of black-and-white photographic fragments are partially draped and offset by cotton cloth adorning each canvas; partial gestures, they show hands placed protectively downward, a facial gesture obscured to reveal only the blank geometry of tie and blazer, more hands clasped in an embrace, arms crossed in observation, and a woman visible from behind.
The act of inspection, stepping closer to see what indexical specimen or rare artifact lies within, what ephemeral documentation awaits, is redeployed here as the vitrine takes on its second contour as an architectural model. The parceled-out gestures of the photographic fragments greet the approaching viewer with an inversion of scale. The expectation of evidentiary material is replaced with an observing stance—the object itself appearing to look on. Inspired in part by Vjeneslav Richter’s design for the Yugoslavian Pavilion of the 1958 World’s Fair held in Brussels, Belgium, which was initially referred to as “foundations in the air,” Maljković shifts the utopian model toward a bracing, observant gesture.
Temporary Projections (version 2), 2012, further elaborates the setting of a studio turned quietly surreal and preoccupied. A pairing of composite photo collages show a daylight studio view—canvases ready on the wall, a drawing table holding plans perhaps for future exhibitions, a 16mm projector—offset by a night view of the same space with plant fronds growing hybrid from the studio wall and springing upward from the end of a lighting tripod. In the latter view, the projector is draped with black cloth and the space appears marked out as entirely speculative and provisional—a site of deferred action. In third collage of the series a 16mm projector perches atop a derelict Doric column in a bucolic background, heralding Maljković’s “temporary projections” and the fate of the apparatus as tragicomic. The apparent productive readiness of the studio reveals itself to be a subtle yet comic set-up: paintbrushes are propped up on their own, defying gravity, film leader runs from the projector to the wall, and dots of color adorn the corners of blank canvases, absurdly assessing, mapping, and qualifying.
This shift from interior to exterior is extended by what lies behind the penumbral glare of a large studio light placed close to the gallery wall. Just visible from an oblique angle, a heavy black impasto painting hangs behind a circular incision in the wall—out of casual reach and view. Scratched into the thick swaths of paint, a small tree inches up from a rudimentary tripod. It is met with impediment, cloaking, and the blinding light of the present but it proceeds. As the painting’s hybrid depiction declares—paired with an actual plant elsewhere in the exhibition—new growth must anticipate obstacles, revise, and negotiate the future.
In Lucy Skaer’s installations, the conventional classification of objects and historical references is held up to scrutiny, material transformation, and a shift toward the symbolic and absurd. Abstraction attempts to speak through recalcitrant representation. Often working with pre-existing imagery and imprinted or found forms, Skaer’s sculptures, films, and works on paper take on a syntactical emphasis in their use of version and variation. The impression of an encoded proto-linguistic message is acutely felt yet repeatedly suspended. Surrogate adaptations of Constantin Brancusi’s Bird In Space and Newborn sculptures, for example, use familiar art historical forms as decoys for exploring faltering modes of material reproduction and distribution, resulting in the collapse of image and object into a shared psychological space that characterizes much of her work.
Lucy Skaer, The Good Ship Blank and Ballast (after Brancusi), 2010, installation view at Kunstsammlung 21, Düsseldorf
As with Skaer’s installation The Good Ship Blank and Ballast (after Brancusi), 2010, at Intensif-Station, K21 Dusseldorf, for example, the egg-like cast shape of Brancusi’s Newborn (whose first version dates to 1915) lies scattered along the gallery floor like a tiny fleet or readying armada below the stark red and black image of a medieval ship of fools. Pulled directly from a relief carved into the wooden floor itself—incised on the opposite side of the gallery—the print follows an image that accompanied the comic narrative Narrenschyff ad Narragoniam by Alsation satirist Sebastian Brandt (1457-1521), depicting a band of fools huddled in a skull sailing off to the land of “Narragonia.” In Skaer’s hands, newborn is matched with naïf, egg with half-shell, original with copy, 2D with 3D, proximity with removal. This tacking between historical citation and a way of seeing that is unmoored from its reference enacts what writer Georges Didi-Huberman has termed “contact images”:
“Contact images?... Images that are too close. Adherent images. Image-obstacles, but obstacles that make things appear. Images coupled to each other, indeed even to the things of which they are the image. Contiguous images, images backing each other.”(4)
Lucy Skaer, Black Alphabet (After Brancusi), 2008
The obstacles and boundary conditions that occur in Skaer’s work often back into each other, abut, contradict, and repeat, as with Black Alphabet (After Brancusi), 2008, which posits twenty-six dust coal sculptures gathered like sentries. Modeled after Brancusi’s Bird In Space, 1923, and following the number of editions produced, the potential iteration of the object is made manifest, inverted into an adherent image assembly where all versions are accounted for. Skaer’s film works further elaborate an approach to obstacle and abstraction that is a form of allegiance and attachment. Taking advantage of the mesmeric frame-by-frame nature of film, Skaer insists upon a highly gestural materiality of recalling form through unlikely protagonists.
Lucy Skaer, Leviathan Edge, 2009
In her exhibition Rachel, Peter, Caitlin, John, 2010, for example, three 16mm studies of highly auratic subjects—a detailed view of a surviving copy of the Gutenberg Bible from the New York Public Library’s collection, a vacillating portrait of two Mark Rothko paintings housed in German museum collections, and the restive eye of a cat’s animal gaze—were punched through with varying intervals of abstract shapes. Having collected ticket-punching devices, Skaer superimposes each elementary portrait with intermittent frame-by-frame puncture sequences. The rudimentary syntax of shapes that unfolds between the three films—eliciting a desire to read an encoded proto-linguistic or rebus-like message—arises and appears to function only to then recede. Skaer’s act of negation is a direct enactment of medium as the puncture territorializes the objects portrayed and the scene of their projection, imprinting them both literally and figuratively—book, animal eye, and field of vision are hewn and riven by a stuttering language. The wayward representation of Skaer’s approach relies upon a spectator willing to engage in an act of translating between the images and their highly subjective negation. This act of reading the obstructed or obscured object-as-image happens again on a grander scale in Skaer’s, Leviathan Edge, 2009, where a sperm whale skeleton is hemmed in on all four sides by intermittent walls that serve as intervals for viewing the form in a deliberate unfolding of time. Engaging “a considerable effort of memory and imagination,” to borrow Gilles Deleuze’s description of a montage where there is no ultimate narrative imposition or resolve to make up for the gaps and lacunae that arise between images, Skaer’s filmic approach results in a “false continuity” imparted to reproducible objects and the natural world.(5) For her most recent films the puncture further emphasizes a focus on the interval of the cut, as the “in between” is made primary.
Skaer’s new film, Margin of July, 2012, extends from a recent installation, Film for an Abandoned Projector, 2011, in which Skaer imagined the residual memory of a 35mm projector she happened upon in an abandoned cinema in Leeds, England. Each frame of the new film has been punched through with a more neutral horizon, leaving only the margins. Natural landscapes on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean unfold in fragments at the edge of the image—broken up skies, windswept forest canopy, harbor shots—and are brought close to geometric objects coming to rest, footage of mineral specimens, the dark interior of the Lyric House cinema in Leeds, a close-up view of harvesting fruit, or a shoreline view of tall ships passing at sea. Creating a space between telling and dwelling, Skaer’s shots imply narrative consequence—the so-called “action-image” of approaching a bank of windows to look out below, for example—before quickly giving way to an “affection-image” as Skaer narrows in to follow the twists and turns of a copper wire.(6) Such transitions become Skaer's mode of transition as sunlight finds an interior flash of light, or the coming to rest of a manufactured sphere recalls the ripeness of fruit. Throughout, however, correspondence through likeness, movement, and shape is attenuated by the stabilizing imposition of the puncture.
The cut of montage—wedding footage together to create tension through immediacy, contrast, and flow—is abstracted to the margin of the image, residing at its outer edge. Movement is exiled and localized to the entering and exiting of the frame. The effort to read across the filmic gap that results requires what German filmmaker Alexander Kluge calls the act of viewers becoming “co-producers” in the articulation of images.(7) Skaer’s film is direct in this as it holds on to a gesture of removal (the cut or interval) that redoubles the expressiveness embedded in the image sequence. Two new sculptures extend this exploration of contact and interval as abstract cast shapes arise through successive generations—each new iteration receiving a new material to work from. Corner, Trap, Snare, 2012, for example, climbs the wall in three rungs from glass to bronze to wax in variations upon an abstract, ear-like shape made to stand on end, elongated and iterative like an apostrophe made vertical. Unfolding in three steps on the floor, Lie, Recline, List, 2012, proceeds from slate to wax to pewter in its synonymous departure from minimalist form, echoing the film’s nearby puncture.
From the pairing of these interrelated sculptures to a new photographic series, Us to Them, 2012, the coupling of image to material and object to image surface resonates. Responding directly to Édouard Vuillard’s 1895 painting The Album, Skaer’s photographs extend the allover pattern and decoration of Vuillard’s interior scene into three dimensions as hardwood sculptures embedded with the patterns of semi-precious stones are held aloft before details of the painting. One of two gestures is staged and suspended in direct contact with Vuillard’s decision to leave a section of the canvas thin, bare, and opaque, while another returns the swirl and quiver of Vuillard’s insistent flatness and connective continuity from wall to figure to flower to couch to gaze that claimed the apt term “Intimist” in describing its attentiveness to surface.
Rather than providing a commentary or supposition on Vuillard’s technique and his past as a scene painter in the theater or contrasting the painting’s departure from well-known breakthrough compositions like Interior, Mother and Sister of the Artist and Interior of the work-table, both 1893, or elaborating upon the painting’s commission by Thadée and Misia Natanson, publishers of the avant-garde journal La Revue Blanche, and frequent hosts to Vuillard in the ornate yet intimate confines of their Parisian home, Skaer instead chooses to inhabit the moment, pulling forward a direct correspondence. The painting is made contiguous to the held gesture, object to surface, elongated present to suddenly manifest past become counterparts. Skaer’s objects interrupt the pictorial space without canceling the decisions of the painting, marking the surface as a site of perception, a place of looking. Us to Them moves away from interpreting the picture through citation, provenance, and context, and insists upon direct encounter, translation, and mimesis. Taking away the assured language of interpretation, Skaer stands on being relative, being alongside, being too close.(8) The gesture is held on to, the scene takes shape, the invitation is clear. We must inhabit the image.
(1) Richter’s many arguments for the political freedom inherent within abstraction and experiments between the applied and fine arts is evoked and suspended into a gesture to reconsider. A founding member of EXAT-51—short for Experimental Ateliers—Richter was part of a group of Croatian artists and architects active in Zagreb between 1950 and 1956 whose work called for the legitimacy of experimental art practices, and continued on through what is known as The New Tendencies movement of the 1970s in Yugoslavia. For more on the New Tendencies movement and EXAT-51, see “Cornerstone Under the Grass: Innovation in Croatian Art in the 1970s,” WHW, The Exhibitionist, No. 3, January, 2011, p. 5-8; and, “Mission Impossible V: Revisiting Modernism,” in David Maljkovic, Retired Compositions, published on the occasion of the exhibition, Retired Compositions, at Metro Pictures Gallery, 2009, (Galerija Nova Newspapers, No. 17), p. 3-5.
(2) “This is 11th International Istanbul Biennial Curator’s Text,” 11th International Istanbul Biennial: What Keeps Mankind Alive?, exhibition catalog, (Metinler, 2009), p. 105
(3) Ibid., p.105
(4) Didi-Huberman, Georges, “Contact Images,” trans. A. Hartz (Los Angeles, California: Tympanum, Journal of Comparative Literary Studies Studies, University of Southern California, 1999, No. 3), p. 47
(5) GIlles Deleuze, Cinema 2: The Time–Image, (University of Minnesota Press, 1989), p. 245
(6) The quality which is realized in the affection-image and its paradigmatic shot the close-up, are to be understood, according to Deleuze, as affect expressed for itself "outside of place-time coordinates, as singularity in its uniqueness and in its virtual relations." Cinema 2: The Time–Image, (University of Minnesota Press, 1989), p.144
(7) Alexander Kluge, “On Film and the Public Sphere”, New German Critique, 25/26, 1981–1982, and the section “The Spectator as Entrepreneur,” p. 210–211
(8) In discussing a 2006 film project, The Joker, which found Skaer traveling to Mexico City to meet Leonora Carrington (who passed away this past year), Skaer contextualizes her interest in courting the irrational via her interest in the elderly painter as such: “The ongoing practice of Surrealism seemed suddenly radical to me when thought about as current: a strategy of living by the irrational. The Transcendance of the Image,” Tate, etc. Issue 14 Autumn, 2008, www.tate.org.uk/tateetc/issue14/image.htm