Renowned artist Donald Kuspit, also a Senior Critic at the Academy, shared his insights about the 2011 graduates work. This essay was included in "UNCHARTED," the 2011 commencement catalog.
Some Dialectical Images
by Donald Kuspit
Given my dialectical way of thinking, and my general sense of the absurdity of things—my sense that it is hard to distinguish their appearance from their reality, to see through their appearance to their reality even as one acknowledges the reality of their appearance, suggesting their mind- and eye-teasing paradoxical character, their inherent uncertainty of meaning, or rather their constantly changing meaning, depending on their changing appearance and situation, suggesting a fluid, nuanced continuity of meanings, never fixed yet necessarily fixed if one is to represent the thing—what makes these works engaging, by which I mean cognitively and emotionally convincing at the spontaneous moment of their seeing, is their tension, that is, my sense of their dialectical thoughtfulness, more pointedly, my sense that they are dialectically poised, like a ballerina balanced on point for an absurd moment, a moment of representational magic charged with cognitive and emotional nuance, and with that uncertainty and insecurity, even mystery (for mystery means insecurity and uncertainty).
Thus, I find Lauren Amalia Redding's Illumination Tropical appealing by way of the contradiction, the abrupt difference, between the sexy, crimson portrait of the aging femme fatale (note her heart-shaped earrings, sort of like notches in the belt of her sexiness) and the gray portrait of the young unsmiling man on the wall behind her, presumably an old flame and conquest, now a distant memory whose portrait she painted from a faded photograph. Their relationship is not clearly resolved, however connected they clearly are. We can only guess at what happened between them – presumably an affair, but maybe not, considering his proper, restrained appearance, and averted eyes, and her seductive appearance, her eyes catching our eyes, snaring us in their trap, her big bosom thrust forward, both suggesting she has no shame. They are at odds, all the more so because she's in the larger painting and he's in the smaller one, and they're both in the over-all painting—thus a picture within a picture within a picture, a compounding of contradictoriness, discrepancy, absurdity—uncomfortable tension, uncertainty, mystery, uncanniness. I like the sort of smoldering passion implied, reminding us that libido doesn't disappear with age, and the nuanced handling, with its shadows, suggesting the woman's haunted by the man's image even though she may have forgotten his reality. A complex, incomplete narrative is generated and condensed, confirming that a convincing representation is like a dream, temporary yet expressing human nature at its deepest.
Andrea Williams' Homage is different, but the effect is the same: a woman, now young, stands alone, holding a rake, with a black dog behind her to her right and a red lawnmower, in front of a leafless (dead?) tree behind her to her right. Am I over-interpreting by suggesting that that the dog is the devil in disguise—the devil appeared as a black dog in Goethe's Faust I—and that the devilish dog is an expression of repressed instincts, aggressive and sexual, reminding us that the full bosomed woman is sexual (her red sweater is similar in import to the red dress of Redding's woman, however more luminous) and that her rake has aggressive import (think of the devil's pitchfork)? The woman has sexy red hair and a rather truculent—so it seems to me—expression on her face. She's ready for action and confronts us, unflinchingly, like Redding's red hot lady—ready to rake us in, as it seems to my farfetched imagination. She too is smoldering with passion. She too makes an uncanny, "suggestive" appearance: a representation of an appearance —what's visible to the naked eye—should always evoke unconscious, invisible reality (which means that you should always get more than you see), at least if it is to have instant effect, insidiously penetrate the viewer's defensive radar, get under the viewer's psychic skin.
What is striking to me about the women artists is that whatever they're representing it (almost) always seems to have a sexual charge. They're covertly concerned with female desire whatever they're overtly depicting. The red flag in Elena Soterakis' Power Plant signals sexual as well as social danger. The placement of the flag close in the foreground and of the power plant far in the background is absurdly dialectical. The flag functions as a repoussoir device, but it stands alone in its physical difference, a peculiarly forlorn "surreal" figure—dare one say a female figure, with a "minimalist" affinity to some of Picasso's surreal female figures, also made of planar fragments. Elena Rodz's The Snake—it's rather large and ominous—is ready to disturb the naked man and women (two Eves?) in paradise. It's a symbol of illicit desire. It seems to be shedding some of its skin, but what it reveals underneath has a bizarre resemblance to the ridged skin of an erect penis. The female figure in Susan Calace-Wilklow's untitled painting seems to be an adolescent Danae, if the brilliant light invading her hidden crotch is any clue. The pensive female face in Carrie J. Adam's Night Rx suggests frustrated desire. Perhaps that's why the figure can't sleep at night. Cara De Angelis's Woman and Roadkill I/Dolls and Roadkill/Woman and Roadkill is rich with meaning: let's focus on the dialectic of the dead animal and the females, each at a different stage in life, but each already "lady killers," not men who are lady killers but women who have killed men, at least in fantasy. But the animals may be their own animal passion. It seems highly likely in the case of the young woman, with long hair, in a pink dress, in Woman and Roadkil l, and the young woman, hair cropped, in what seems like a white bridal gown, in Woman and Roadkill I. A blood red drape hangs behind the little girl, and a blood red drape covers much of the table on which her animals are displayed. The one on the white cloth leaks blood, as do the two on the laps of the older females in the other two paintings. Loretta Mae Hirsch's "How can the infinite of desire be placed on a finite object?" (a quote from a Lacanian theorist) makes my point clearly, especially because the invisible figure is bound, from head to toe, in red ribbons, suggesting female desire become masochistic, or perhaps its inherent masochism.
Maria Kozak's The Bachelorette, with its fighting cocks and expressionistic frenzy—sex and aggression fuse, as in sexual intercourse, and males seem to be fighting over females (the white birds watching the action), or perhaps females have become male and are fighting among themselves (note the flaming red combs, passionately standing out from the dark violence while epitomizing the blood shed)—conveys hysterical desire out of bounds. The female nudes in Rabecca Signoriello's Falling may be falling to their death—are they falling from the ladder on which Nicodemus climbed to lower Christ's dead body from the cross?—but they also seem to be in a sort of ecstatic swoon, suggesting they are falling from grace into sexual sin. Monica Olsen's sculpture Me & Sofus shows a nude—nakedness almost always arouses and/or conveys desire—tenderly embracing a doll, suggesting her frustrated wish for a child. Alycia Thompson's Dog is a projection of her own threatening desire (note her red dress). "Desire under the Elms" indeed, as the little red plants underfoot suggest. Is the young woman in Stephanie Lindquist's sculpture Awakening awakening to desire? Is the female figure in Mary Harju's Axis twisted—manneristically distorted—by desire?
Emily Slapin Lufkin's Self-Portrait shows her half naked, her full breasts suggesting she's ripe with desire and desirable, even as her forbidding glance suggests she's conflicted about her own desire, and challenging any man who desires her. Meredith Lachin also presents herself as a forbidding object of desire, perhaps a sacred virgin, as the quasi-Gothic pointed canvas suggests, dedicated to art. In Soliloquy, Melissa Hardison's very white—virginally white—female figure reclines on a very red—passionately red—carpet of desire. The red bundle the female figure is tightly holding to her naked body in Diana Corvelle's Cyclone is a symbol of her desire. Tabitha Whitley's Hookah Girl is hot with passion, as the nipple-pink jewelry that adorns her suggests. Her expression suggests she's orgasmic with self-absorbed pleasure—ravishing indeed. In Han Xu's untitled painting a female in underclothes, reclining on a passionately red cloth, passionately embraces an animal, the age-old symbol of animal desire. The three females in Charlotte Foyle's Top Dog are an intimidating three graces. The center spreads her legs wide, in a suggestive crotch shot, and wears a flaming red hoodie. The dog in front of her is not exactly friendly. Perhaps she's Diana with her nymphs, ready to hunt to death any man who sees them, the way the ancient goddesses hounded and hunted Actaeon to death. Corinne Beardsley's female figure—Self—seems in distress, as her position suggests, but peculiarly self-possessed, as her pensively introspective expression suggests.
What about the work of the male artists? Very generally speaking, it seems to have less to do with desire and narcissism, although it also has its emotional power and complexity, as Ryan Lanham's Bathers and Daniel Esquivia-Zapata's Gerado make clear. But desire seems to be the secret of Shawn Yu's Hiding Place, as the white roses in the foreground suggest. They suggest that the boy is a virgin, awakening to his desire and wishing for love. Jason Sho Green's King and I deals with a childhood memory, but the red child and the red animals—suggesting his identification with them—suggest impulsive id. But Brett F. Harvey's male nude, Polarity, is deep in thought—beyond desire. Similarly, Tun Ping Wang's Raphael Schulte is a portrait of ego rather than id—of a self-possessed person rather than an individual owned by desire.
What is most striking about Francis Nguyen's male dancer—an untitled sculpture—is the poise of the figure, seemingly precariously balanced on one foot, with right hand holding left foot and left hand raised in front of his face, but completely in control of himself: a tour de force study of what Kandinsky and Mondrian called dynamic equilibrium. Nguyen suggests that the parts of the body are naturally equilibrated and inherently dynamic, giving them an abstract quality and formal autonomy even as their seamless interdependence conveys a unity of purpose beyond the reach of any modernist construction, that is, a so-called pure work of abstract art. The body has always been more to the point of art than purity, and Joseph Ventura's In-Phase Feedback Loop of Time, Space and the Probability Wave Function of an Apparently Frustrated Human Subject, Parts II, III and IV, is all about the body, in a wild variety of positions, tumbling over itself with frustrated desire—more demonstratively frustrated than the more poignantly frustrated desire of some of the female figures. I like the moody absurdity of the space, and the pit and the pendulum effect of the diagonal wall—claustrophobia indeed, as the narrow abyss-like pit confirms. The physics of the title works with the physicality of the bodies, even as it suggests a certain seemingly scientific detachment of the figures, as though ironically taking their measure.
Ian Healy's Horse is another twisted, distorted body, dramatically hanging in space, like Rembrandt's dead beef, but more macabre and intimidating by reason of its ominous dark atmosphere and confrontational closeness to the picture plane, as well as the claustrophobic oval space into which it is squeezed. Ryan Lanham's Bathers also takes on the female body, rendering it with expressionistic turbulence bordering on the grotesque. Indeed, it is obesely grotesque—morbid beyond redemption. Clearly the male vision of the female body is different from the female vision of the female body—and not just because men and women have different bodies—as the female nudes painted by the female artists makes clear.
The female body also appears, somewhat fragmented and fiery, in Benjamin Martins' Pretty Fierce—pretty but fierce, suggesting the difficulty of relating to her, if also her self-destructiveness. The patchy gesturalism of the work gives it abstract credibility even as the work is figuratively convincing, if ironically. Jeff Gipe's untitled fresco—a sort of relief mural—is made of steel wool, a medium I've never before encountered. Its grayness and grittiness are eloquently melancholy. The mother and male child—he's attached to her, but standing in our space, adding to the relief "thrust" of the work—belong to the past, suggesting that the work is a kind of screen memory. The steel wool, woven together like gestural strands, is memorable in itself, "backing up" the ghostly, shadowy figures—the steel wool is in effect the substance of shadow—with its atmospheric density. Miguel Torres-Carlos' Is That You? has the same "overcast" gray look, suggesting a similar melancholy sensibility, but his scene is much more desolate: as the dead trees, with their broken limbs suggests, he is depicting the death of nature. His handling is exquisitely delicate for such a morbid theme. The figure, with its red face, in the destroyed forest, seems like a mirage in a desert.
Yi Cao's School Age Portrait and Boris Tyomkin's Commedia dell Arte come from different sides of art history—the former is a sort of late modernist semi-abstract head, the latter a picturesque theatrical scene that would be at home in 18th century Venice—but what brings them together is their common concern with human expression, in Cao of the face, in Tyomkin of the body as well as the face. Alaina Plowdrey's Emotional Market has an ironical affinity with Tyomkin's work—it's another comedy in which a variety of emotions are on theatrical display—however more contemporary and uncostumed the figures. Is that Alaina with the sunglasses? She satirizes the male figures more than the female figure. Aliene de Souza Howell's Barber Shop—a dramatically dark black and white print, with meticulous attention to detail and texture—also satirizes men: the barber shop seems to be on the planet of the apes, with human beings the servant barbers. Daniel Esquivia-Zapata's portrait of Gerardo is an exquisite drawing, revealing a subtle mastery of a variety of materials—graphite, pastel, charcoal, and gesso (on mylar)—treating the male figure somewhat more compassionately. Rather than focusing on the hairy, stupid exterior of the male ape, Esquivia-Zapata grasps the inner life of his male sitter—the essence of his selfhood—conveying his profound humanity and dignity. I suppose men and women will never see each other through the same lens.
I have deliberately ignored the formal intricacies of the works in order to focus on their emotional import, and to suggest the truth of Freud's view that a work of art is a sublimation of desire, that is, a wish fulfillment (in social dream form). And to suggest that female desire is more intense, and greater, than male desire, which is perhaps why fewer woman artists are recognized than male artists (and why men seem to "recognize" women's bodies more than their minds and desire): their art is more emotionally demanding and tensing, often explicitly.