The Brooklyn Rail

APR 2015

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APR 2015 Issue

JOANNE GRÜNE-YANOFF Between the Skin and the Prop

A space without a permanent home, the International Fine Arts Consortium— temporarily located on Delancey Street on the Lower East Side, is showing the collage work and correspondence of Joanne Grüne-Yanoff, an American artist who lives and works in Stockholm. The smallish individual works nicely reflect Grüne-Yanoff’s ongoing interest in nature: small butterflies decorate the letters written between herself and Monica L. Miller, a professor of American and African-American literature at Barnard College; they discuss the imagery from an earlier show by the artist that Miller saw in Stockholm.

On View
International Fine Arts Consortium
March 4 - May 3, 2015
New York

Their letters explore metaphors of flight—images Grüne-Yanoff often refers to in her collages—and how the work might be a means of contestation or even rebellion concerning the duality of clothes and skin—topics Miller writes about. In the collages, Grüne-Yanoff regularly includes letters from the two women’s exchange of ideas. These are retyped on an old manual typewriter, giving the collages an antiquated look that emphasizes, in its imperfections, the physical discontinuity and messy production of the type itself.

Joanna Grüne-Yanoff, "November Letter JGY-MLM" (2014).

The letters bring an intellectual and even ethical dimension to Grüne-Yanoff’s sometimes eerie renditions of nature, where a mysticism can prevail. In the midst of one composition, we find an owl. Half disturbing, half reassuring, this bird of prey— representing wisdom but also the impersonal violence of the hunt—stands as a totem supporting the artist’s efforts. Butterflies, in these often-symbolic works, seem to stand for the beauty and fragility of nature. But politics never fail to follow close behind the artist’s images of a transcendent world. In the collage entitled “November Letter” (2014), Grüne-Yanoff writes to Miller: “I am interested in the idea that one way to break out of oppressive states is through a combination of contemplation and creative action.” Part of a longer section of writing typed on the top third of the collage, the quotation clearly equates freedom of the imagination with the responsibility of its political consequences. Beneath the statement is a graphite drawing of a heavy, naked man with his back to us; he wears extended wings. To the right side of the paper is a collection of actual birds’ wings, as well as the wings of butterflies, held together by thread. In addition to the compilation of political insight, we can also see the wish, ongoing in Grüne-Yanoff’s art, to fly. It is a metaphor for transcendence. In the last line of the letter to Miller, she remarks, “the reaching forward, the striving, attracts me.”

Can metaphysics and pointed political debate coexist in the same work of art? One of the strengths of the show, titled Between the Skin and the Prop is its willingness to merge the imagination with its moral implications and consequences. In the dialogue between Grüne-Yanoff and Miller, there is an attempt to transcend art’s tendency to be self-boundaried and self-reliant; both artist and professor want to specify the social reasoning going on behind the image—that is, the meaning found between the skin and the prop. In a comment on the artist’s imagery, Miller finds that the shoes in the artworks, fashioned out of butterfly wings, culturally construct change in a social sense—as she says, they are “designed to ‘elevate’ the wearer or create a disguise which enables passage from one identity category to another.” Fashion, the vestments we wear to define ourselves, can be modified or transformed by the artist’s sensibility. Even so, the costume is never free of its social pose. Gruene-Yanoff accepts this interpretation despite her tendency to lean toward statements of mystical inclination—what could be more transcendent than the experience of flight?

But if we take the notion of skin and extend its meaning, we become aware of race. And if we focus in on the prop—ostensibly the clothing we use to cover ourselves—it too develops into something else, most likely a metaphor for how we protect ourselves from vulnerability, from people curious about the sight of our skin. In America today, such implications are far from slight; race remains the tragic intersection between identity and otherness. That Grüne-Yanoff is willing to tie her art, which tends to be expansive and ethereal, into something so politicized in an open dialogue seems to me a challenging and even brave tack to take. In some cases her figures are tied by red string to the ground or rocks in the collage; the red line stand out in mostly gray or black and white imagery. It may well be a reminder of mortality, of our earthbound nature despite our wish to transcend our circumstances. Grüne-Yanoff knows that the ethereal and the worldly can sometimes reflect each other, so that a social interpretation of wings is not without weight.


Jonathan Goodman

Jonathan Goodman is an art writer and poet who focuses on modern and contemporary art.


The Brooklyn Rail

APR 2015

All Issues