Kent Gallery, September 4 – October 18, 2008
"I answered him yes because I have the confidence in that readiness and knowing that you can't blink, you have to be wired in a way of being so committed to the mission, the mission that we're on, reform of this country and victory in the war, you can't blink."
-Sarah Palin, Vice-Presidential nominee
New York’s fall art season is in full swing and you would never know that our country is on the precipice of an historic presidential election. Kent Gallery’s current exhibition, Entre Chien et Loup (“between dog and wolf”), gives itself fully to this crepuscular moment in American politics. The title is an expression that refers to the transitional hour between day and night at which a dog and a wolf are indistinguishable from each other. In a broader sense, the expression is about the human capacity to perceive transformation in its many guises, from the treacherous to the mystical. The exhibition draws no line between politics and poetry. The selected artists are a fresh mix of established and lesser known, from the polymath visionaries of the 1960s-—Yoko Ono, Richard Hamilton, Jess-—to the contemporary video work of Dennis Adams and Antoni Muntadas.
Unsurprisingly, it is the time-based medium of video that best realizes the changeling nature of the expression, “Entre chien et loup.” Muntadas’ looping video installation “The Nap/La Siesta/Dutje” (1995) provides a haunting musical accompaniment to the gallery experience. In a dark side–room, the video defines a corner of light projected on a sheet-draped armchair. The bubbling, newsreel movement of black and white footage from the 1930s through the 1970s is inter-cut with silent color video of a sleeper’s closed hand. At the conclusion the twin worlds overlap. The hand opens to reveal a coin that slips in a single, graceful motion into the black and white realm, cascading through space to come to rest in a sidewalk grate. History rolls on, anonymous, noisy and terrifying, as the individual lives and dies within a personal spot of time. “The Nap’s” melancholic collage of a personal destiny into history’s flow is reminiscent of Chris Marker’s World War I inspired video installation “OWLS AT NOON Prelude: The Hollow Men” (2005).
To further explore the shifting threshold between politics, history and personal engagement, Kent’s exhibition book includes three texts: a 1794 letter from George Washington addressed “To the Chiefs and Warriors of the Cherokee Nation of Indians” the text of an 1854 speech given by Native American Chief Sealth, and an excerpt from Noam Chomsky’s Failed States (2006). Only the Washington letter is featured in the gallery. Sepia stained and delicate, it sits next to an equally archaic-looking and vibrant collage by Jess, “The Chariot: Tarot VII” (1962). Addressing the native leaders as “My Children,” Washington promises land and protection that were later revoked by Thomas Jefferson leading to the Trail of Tears massacre in the 1830s. Studying the curling, quill script, it’s easy to get lost in the poetry of the historical past, trying to figure out how the current abominable state of our country was forged from a legacy of broken promises.
A wide range of ghosts and doubles haunts the gallery of Entre Chien et Loup. Many of the artists grapple with the quiet, abstract forms that political acts of terror come to assume in contemporary culture. Richard Hamilton’s 1970 screenprint, “Kent State,” is a soft-focus, pixilated television image of a wounded student. Hamilton states that he wanted to create an “unsentimental” response to the shocking immediacy of watching the events unfold in real time. A photograph taken by Dennis Adams on September 11, 2001, “Airborne: Payback,” is a similarly muted translation of horror. The image is a fragment of newspaper caught in the blue sky, the one readable word, “Payback,” comes from an unknown advertisement. Hamilton and Adams have captured moments that lay no blame on the politics of their respective times. Difficult to comprehend, the images lead us back to the netherworld of the media’s transformative properties. Dennis Adams’ photomontage series, “Double Feature,” (2008) takes Jean Seberg out of Godard’s “Breathless” (1959) and places her amid the action of Gillo Pontecorvo’s “The Battle of Algiers” (1965). The instantly recognizable image of Seberg fits in with the exhibition’s aura of cross-fertilization between 1960s pop aesthetics and contemporary art practices. The complex political and sociological implications in juxtaposing “Breathless” and “The Battle of Algiers” are superseded by the work’s open-endedness.
The weakest links in the exhibition are the works that come the closest to thematic illustration. Heide Fasnacht’s meticulous color pencil drawing of a building imploding bears an obvious reference to the familiar visuals of September 11. Likewise, Mike Cockrill’s painting, “Oh, Little Shepherd Boy” (2008), a syrupy sweet image of a boy surprised by a wolf-woman, is a cloying moment at odds with its serious company. On the opposite side of the imagery spectrum is Irving Petlin’s large-scale, chalk and oil pastel on linen, “Hebron” (1998-2001). The work exudes a heaviness that overwhelms the small gallery space. Blood-like streaks of cadmium red pastel pigment shine from the surface and specter-like figures emanate from the background. “Hebron” takes up an entire wall, making it impossible to come to terms with the painting beyond its powerful atmospheric effects.
There may be very little room for humor in Entre Chien et Loup, but that doesn’t mean the exhibition is bereft of moments of transcendence and hope. A white step ladder in the middle of the gallery floor leads up to a canvas on the ceiling—the word “Yes” written across it in tiny letters. Yoko Ono’s “Ceiling Painting (Yes Painting),” (1966/1998) is as much about personal freedom and the entertainment value of radical art as it was when it was first exhibited in the mid-sixties at London’s Indica Gallery. Entre Chien et Loup’s re-contextualization of this work lends it a gravitas of uncertain adventure. The anticipation before one reads “Yes” on the ceiling is charged with the unspeakable tension of the present moment. Don’t blink or you’ll miss it.
is an artist based in New York.