Ellen Rothenberg: Beautiful Youth

at Vedanta Gallery V-1, through April 29

Jens Hanke: Sequence

at Fassbender, through April 29

Matthew Girson

at Zolla/Lieberman, through April 29

By Fred Camper

Many artists’ statements today sound the same: I don’t aim to enforce a specific interpretation; I hope that different viewers will form different opinions. This profound shift from the more hierarchical relationship between viewer and work in prior centuries is appropriate to increasing democratization. But it’s not easy to make something great out of such art, not easy to create clarity and beauty while abjuring a single viewpoint. Indeed, some artists use this notion as an excuse for sloppy work: unable to figure out what it means, they leave it all to the viewer.

Ellen Rothenberg’s installation at Vedanta V-1, Beautiful Youth, is elegant and provocative, but I found its openness troubling, especially given her use of Nazi images. On one wall are Nazi propaganda photographs of idealized “Aryan” women performing domestic tasks–sorting berries, holding chicks, feeding a baby. Rothenberg has cropped them all just above the nose, making the women even more anonymous than the Nazis did. Presumably critiquing the way Nazi idealization destroyed human uniqueness, she nonetheless retains the photos’ insipid sweetness. Large “fingerprint drawings” on nearby tables show her fingerprints on transparent sheets, perhaps asserting her own uniqueness. Another table holds wax casts of her hand and forearm. These might be of the whole hand, or the hand and forearm, or just a single finger–but every part feels severed. Cast in a range of skin colors from creamy white, olive, and tan through deep black, these represent the opposite of “Aryan” purity. On another wall are five different aprons in styles appropriate to the period in the photos. Each of these elements has a peculiar power, but I had difficulty making sense of them all together.

In the catalog for an earlier installation of Beautiful Youth in Boston, Rothenberg, a Chicagoan, is quoted as saying: “I have an interest in making work that resists a singular or static reading, work that operates on different levels simultaneously.” In a short statement written for this exhibition (but not on view), she writes, “Beautiful Youth points toward the construction of the female within twentieth century experience,” going on to suggest that its central tension is “the pull between the fascist model of the ideal female…and our own familiarity and acceptance of these images of women within the traditions and values of American culture and society.” Presumably she’s arguing that we too see women as sweet, pure creatures performing “womanly” tasks, but nowhere does she make the connection to our present explicit.

In her catalog essay, curator Mary Drach McInnes interprets the wax casts in terms of Marx’s and Freud’s notions of fetish, concluding that “women are evaluated, constructed, and put into production.” Apparently she reads all the installation’s elements as relating to the Nazi ideal of women as well as the current ideal. But the Nazis were above all racist and would never have jumbled together various races the way Rothenberg does with her table of fingers and hands. They would have regarded the idea that we’re all a mix of various races as even worse. And fragmentation–here as in the cropped photographs–is a modernist strategy the Nazis explicitly repudiated. Hitler, a notorious literalist, would have likely concluded from the cropped photographs that the artist had some kind of optical defect and was unable to see whole faces. Indeed, the wax casts evoke contemporary artists such as Kiki Smith, whose troubling whole-body sculptures show women enduring diseased states alone.

Rothenberg clearly opposes Nazism. One of five works in the show that are not part of Beautiful Youth, titled Hygiene Broom “We Will Die of Hygiene,” consists of a large broom mounted on the wall with “We will die of hygiene” lettered on it, recalling the link the Nazis made between cleanliness and the “ideal” of racial purity. So at least one meaning of this piece is clear, but meaning in Beautiful Youth is harder to pin down. What exactly is Rothenberg suggesting about images of women under Nazism and today? Whatever she has in mind, she seems to be counting on the viewer’s automatic revulsion to Nazism to do much of the work for her. The casual viewer who misses the swastikas in the photos might come up with a bizarre if plausible interpretation: whereas the original photographs have some of the peaceful wholeness of the women’s natural settings, the modernist croppings, rusted frames, and wax body parts–Rothenberg’s additions–suggest a tragically fragmented present. Were it not for the photos’ Nazi origins, a viewer might find himself preferring the Nazi view of women.

McInnes repeats the postmodern objection to the idea of history as a single “master narrative” and argues that Rothenberg’s projects “resist any monolithic description of history.” Well, fine, but every one of those women’s brooches bears a swastika. Do we really want art that resists any monolithic description of the meaning of the swastika? Or are some symbols so irretrievably evil that they should not be permitted anything but “a singular or static reading”? If what the Nazis did was truly exceptional, rather than simply another chapter in the history of evil, how can we make blithe comparisons between their society and our own?

There’s nothing so loaded in the 17 abstract paintings of Jens Hanke (each titled Sequence, Berlin Series) at Fassbender. Born in East Germany in 1961, he received a conservative figure-based art education in Leipzig; he chuckles today at the memory of having to get a special permit to read Paul Klee’s diaries. Only in 1989, when he was able to travel to the West, did he become fully conversant with contemporary art. A major inspiration for the current works, he told me, was the shock of his first visit to Chicago in 1994; in a statement he wrote that, at that moment, “I suddenly found all prior experience useless.”

“I don’t want to just show viewers my meaning or what I want to say,” he told me; he’d rather allow them to reach “other conclusions.” And his densely layered paintings are somewhat mysterious. He starts with a geometrical pattern, laid down with a stencil, that includes black squares, then adds thin layers of a fast-drying resin (alkyd) he’s mixed with pigment–and some tiny glass beads, “to give a sense of volume.” In one work, most of the picture is a yellowish tan field punctuated by darker horizontal bands that suggest a window blind; for Hanke the connection is to lines of text, and the bands are set in columns like text on a page. Near the bottom is a dense black shape of mostly straight edges. This shape is disruptive but overshadowed by the columns and bands, which continue across it: how are we to read the black shape? Indeed, the whole surface is hard to locate in space: just where, and what, are these slightly darker bands? Hanke’s layering tends to deny the viewer any firm grounding.

Even more intriguing are the paintings that include fragments of English words–a recent development in Hanke’s work. The texts are predictably enigmatic: in one diptych, the word “sequence” is printed over a green-columned background on the right, and in reverse over a red-columned background on the left. Hanke invokes the issue of ordering time–the time it takes to look at a painting, the order in which one looks at each half–but doesn’t resolve it. Even more curious is a painting with a blue field in which the lower half of the word “shipping” appears at the top edge and the upper half of the word at the bottom. I imagined a long roll of labels reading “shipping,” of which we see only a small portion. Ordering and time are again suggested by the idea of the roll, while dislocation is evoked by the word itself.

In school Hanke was required to study Russian and able to learn only a little English; now he sometimes can’t quite find the right English word. (“It’s as if it’s hidden in your brain,” he says.) The black areas of the abstract pictures, which he calls “holes,” derive from these experiences; later he substituted words for the holes. His paintings express a resonant experience of ambiguity and dislocation in general enough terms that different viewers might in fact plug in different meanings. But it’s not as if any meaning at all were possible; the viewer should feel doubt and displacement, not recall his moments of triumph or comfort.

Chicagoan Matthew Girson doesn’t provide an artist’s statement for his show at Zolla/Lieberman, and his 24 drawings are untitled. But each of them explicitly leaves an open space for the viewer: right at the center of each supple gray watercolor landscape is a white square. A bit like drive-in movie screens, these squares hover over the scene, their blankness encouraging a mind’s-eye projection.

The landscapes are quite beautiful; Girson gets very subtle effects with his brushes. Some pieces are just skyscapes, while others introduce midwestern-looking mixes of fields, bushes, and trees. Girson’s clouds are particularly subtle, with varying textures and degrees of transparency. At first austere looking in their monochromes, these paintings are subtly seductive–which is what makes the empty squares so powerful.

Usually the squares hover in the sky; in four paintings they’re on the horizon; and in three they’re superimposed over the land. Located at the drawings’ centers, they create an effect of depth. I thought of Caspar David Friedrich’s landscapes with their visions of distant sun or moonlight or fantasy cities or mountain peaks bathed in some unearthly glow; it’s as if Girson had replaced these specific romantic visions of nature worship and transcendence with a space for each viewer.

The Nazis were big Friedrich fans and nature worshipers, and in fact Girson sees his work partly as a response to that. “The Holocaust and Hiroshima told us that there’s a gap in what we understand,” he told me, and the empty squares can be read as representing the holes in the world left by such horrors. Like Rothenberg, Girson is drawn to fragmentation, but he gives the viewer a precise means of participation: the empty squares. One can see them as representing a horror that cannot be depicted or as offering the mind’s eye an opportunity to create something. Girson’s compositions equally and elegantly support both meanings.

Much as I enjoy and believe in work that leaves the viewer a lot of freedom, it’s become such an art-world cliche that it seems it should be questioned. Is the world so perfect, or so incomprehensible, that no beliefs are worth advocating? Opposing the Nazis is easy; treating them ambiguously is dubious. What’s really hard, and rare, is making constructive statements about the problems facing us today.