Located just a few blocks from the pulsing retail heart of America’s country music capital and its cathedral, the original Grand Ole Opry’s Ryman Auditorium, in Nashville, Tennessee, the Frist Center for the Visual Arts is at the crossroads of the contemporary art scene. Not a collecting museum in the traditional sense, the Center nevertheless manages to offer a wide variety of exhibitions—everything from Italian classic fashion design to Michelangelo drawings. Their goal, according to Ellen Pryor, Director of Communications, is to “’keep the wake churning behind the tugboat,’ adhering to an exhibition philosophy aimed at new and expanding audiences in a changing demographic.” With that objective in mind, the current exhibition, third in a series about the human body in contemporary art organized by Frist Center Chief Curator, Mark Scala, Phantom Bodies: The Human Aura in Art includes provocative artworks that address themes of trauma, loss and transformation. xxxxx
In a provocative, fascinating take on the artistic process, Scala considers the possibility of an animating spirit that exists independently of the body. Stepping off from the perspective that “art is not a thing, but an embodiment of an idea,” he approaches the curatorial process by inquiring of the artist, “how is the concept of an idea or emotion infused into the inanimate materials of the studio; and then, how is that “something” transmitted to the viewer? That is, how does the artist communicate the invisible through a visible medium?
Right: The Frist Center for the Visual Arts, Nashville, TN.
This probing question, for which “there may only be more speculation, rather than answers,” resulted in an exhibition comprising a selection of paintings, photography, videos, sculpture and installations by a roster of contemporary international artists. “The artworks in this exhibition are meant to inspire reflection about the relationship between body, mind, and soul, while triggering feelings of empathy, remembrance and compassion,” says Scala. The exhibition title alludes to the phenomenon known as the phantom limb syndrome, when an individual perceives sensation in a lost body part. “While it is frequently a source of pain, the phantom limb here symbolizes the memory of wholeness and a longing for a return of what has been lost.” Interestingly, I was reminded in our conversation of an article that appeared in ARTES two years ago, dealing with the phenomenon called, hyperkulturemia, or Stendhal syndrome (here).
Known to affect some who respond emotionally in the presence of great art, Scala cites the writings of art historian and critic, James Elkins, who explains that “when we cry in front of a painting, it brings to awareness a painful absence—a re-enactment of loss. It is, therefore, the absence, not the presence of emotion in the self.” With the notion in mind that “the artist is at the service of the heart and mind and its primal relationship to the body,” we turn our attention to the exhibition.
Left: Adam Fuss, Medusa, from the series ‘Home and the World,’ 2010. Gelatin silver print photogram, edition 3. Courtesy of the artist and Cheim & Read, New York. © Adam Fuss.
Phantom Bodies is organized thematically into four sections. “Objects and Absences” includes works by Christian Boltanski, Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller, Adam Fuss, Alicia Henry, and Shirin Neshat, who use photographs as well as found and depicted objects, creating symbolic connections to the missing and the dead. These memento mori stand in for those who are absent, providing either phantom comfort or pangs of loss and remembrance. Within this section is Adam Fuss’s, Medusa (2010). Fuss employs a camera-free process in which objects are placed directly on light-sensitive paper, producing an erie negative shadow image. The artist draws on the traditions of early-20th century practitioners who were intrigued by the abstract effects that direct light exposure could create. In this work, Fuss allows a snake-like form to inhabit a Victorian wedding dress—fraught with positive associations—and the writhing form of Medusa, a mythic figure with hair of snakes, a bearer of evil. Fuss here reinterprets the Medusa figure as resembling sperm, a fact that has bearing on a neglected part of the mythology, relating to how her spilt blood begets a golden man and the winged Pegasus.
Right: Deborah Luster (American, b. 1951). LCIW91, from One Big Self: Prisoners of Louisiana, 2000. Pamela Winfield, St. Gabriel, Louisiana, doc #312197, dob. 11.25.64, pob N. Kingston, RI, sentence 5 years. Work: floor worker. Easter Bunny, Children’s Visiting Day. Gelatin silver print on aluminum, edition 5 of 25. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York. © Deborah Luster.
The next section, “Violence, Empathy, and Erasure,” proposes that an artwork’s aura intensifies when connected to crime, war, or social injustice. Haunting sculptures, videos, and photographs by artists in this section, including Magdalena Abakanowicz, Ken Gonzales-Day, Deborah Luster, and Doris Salcedo, relate the emotional fallout from the disappearance and presumed murder of individuals and entire groups of people. Deeply affected by crime, in her mother’s brutal murder, Deborah Luster attempts to deal with her unimaginable loss through a photography project exploring violence and its consequences. Working with poet, C.D Wright, she visited the prisons of Louisiana to document their populations. The resulting project was One Big Self – Prisoners of Louisiana (1998-2003). Viewing the legal system and its historical efforts to codify identity among criminal offenders, Luster considered the 19th century work of policeman-criminologist, Alphonse Bertillon. The first to develop a system of recording the physical characteristics of those arrested in Paris, Bertillon’s methods included photographs, or what today would be called ‘mug shots.’
Luster’s photographs are far from the scene of the crime, having more to do with those found guilty, not merely suspected of crimes. Her prison ‘mug shots’ for One Big Self, were shot during prison Halloween or Easter parties, each dons a mask or costume for the photo session. Scala points out that the artist is embracing a compassionate view of her subjects, “touching the disappeared” as she puts it. Photographs, he says, are shadows, indexes of real people and Luster uses the indicial power of the photograph to touch the lives of her subjects. For the project, Luster reveals much about each of her subjects—excepting crimes for which they are incarcerated. In this manner, she avoids having the viewer’s perception of her work shaped by the severity of her subject’s past offenses. Rather, they exist in the present tense—visible and unjudged. Their costumes, enigmatic in its placement in a prison setting, nevertheless reinforces the knowledge that prison is a place where a vast population disappears, living as phantoms or shadows on the edge of society. This fact is particularly troubling when viewed in the context of the disproportionately large segment of the prison population that is African-American.
Left: Sally Mann, Time and the Bell, from ‘Proud Flesh,’ 2008. Gelatin silver print, edition of 5. Courtesy of the artist and Gagosian Gallery. © Sally Mann.
In the third section, “Sublimation,” Ross Bleckner, Anish Kapoor, Sally Mann, Teresa Margolles and Ana Mendieta explore themes of transition from human form into primal matter, stone or ash, or the pure energy of flame or light, all serving as reminders of our ultimate return to the elements. For example, Sally Mann here employs another photographic technique dating back to the 19th century—the collodion wet plate. This technique requires fairly long exposure times, producing an effect the artist has turned in her favor. Dreamy, soft-focused images greet the viewer from another time and place, filled with intimations of mortality. Time and the Bell, from the ‘Proud Flesh’ series (2008), “poignantly catalogues her husband’s once powerful body, succumbing to the ravages of muscular dystrophy. Mann describes this series as a work of love, embracing the cumulative impact of age and disease accompanying a relationship that has already spanned forty years.”
The exhibition concludes with “The Mind-Body Problem,” with artwork by Barry X Ball, Damien Hirst, Shirazeh Houshiary, Elizabeth King, Gerhard Richter, Annelies Štrba and Bill Viola, all considering the enduring religious, metaphysical question: Can a spirit or life force exist outside a biological host? This question of flow-of-energy—or aura—between artist and viewer is referred to as “a quality of empathy” by Elkins.
Right: Barry X. Ball, Envy / Purity, 2008-12. Envy-Pakistani onyx and stainless steel. Purity-Mexican onyx and stainless steel. Pedestals: Macedonian marble, stainless steel, wood, acrylic laquer, steel, nylon and plastic. Collection of Mike DePaola, NY. © Barry X. Ball.
Said flow is the subject of Barry X Ball’s sculpture. Employing recent technology to create three-dimensional, digital scans of original pieces in stone milling machines, he finishes each by hand. The juxtaposition of his Envy (after Gusto le Court), and Purity (after Antonio Corradini), appear to link these otherwise unrelated works. Envy, a ravaged old woman, seems agape with horror at Purity. By pairing these two unrelated works, Ball is asking the viewer to consider the subject of death. “Whereas Corradini’s Purity combines purity and eroticism, in Ball’s version, the cloth obliterating her face is more shroud than veil, making the body beneath seem to be an indication of the fleeting nature of life, rather than a sign of unattainable desire.”
Scala goes on to write in his exhibition essay, “Ball’s narrative is made more physically pungent by the choice of onyx that has irregular surfaces and impure veins of red oxide and ochre, suggesting transformation and decay. Both figures are corrupt, one by age and ugly emotion, the other with pockmarks and open wounds that eat deeply into the flesh of the corpus. Yet, however horrified she may be, the old woman envies this spectral visitor, as if she prefers youthful death to aging decay.”
As noted previously, this is third in a series curated by Mark Scala, spanning several years. The first exhibition was Paint Made Flesh (2009), which featured artists from Willem de Kooning, Francis Bacon, and Lucian Freud to Jenny Saville and Daniel Richter, for whom paint is a palpable corollary of psychological conditions. Paint Made Flesh traveled to The Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., where it was reviewed by ARTES in 2009.
The second exhibition, Fairy Tales, Monsters, and the Genetic Imagination (2012), connected the symbolism of fantastical beings in mythology, folklore, and science fiction to hybrid bodies that might be generated through some future genetic manipulation. Themes of that second show pointed out the continuing conflict between intellect and emotion. It addresses the fluid nature of identity and the consequences of technology gone wild in the realm of fairy tales, science fiction and, increasingly, in real life. This exhibition was among the Association of Art Museum Curators’ five finalists for “Best Thematic Exhibition of 2012.”
By Richard J. Friswell, Publisher & Managing Editor
Phantom Bodies is accompanied by a fully illustrated catalogue with an introduction by Chief Curator Mark Scala and includes essays by Martha Buskirk, professor of art history and criticism at Montserrat College of Art and recipient of a 2015 Guggenheim Fellowship; Eleanor Heartney, contributing editor to Art in America, who has written extensively on religion in contemporary art; and Lisa Saltzman, professor and chair of history of art at Bryn Mawr. Go to: http://fristcenter.org/