Chrysanne Stathacos: Flower Power at Fiendish Plots, Lincoln, Nebraska, April 19, 2014.
In a performance at the Sheldon Museum at the UNL in Lincoln, Nebraska, performance artist Charley Friedman, in his alter ego personification, X, had his audience pick up a large, imaginary object—and they all gladly did. In her work, Nancy Friedemann has always situated painting in installational environments that enhance their meaning. In both cases, both artists are part of a generation of artists who seek to alter the persistent limiting nature of the art-life gap in viewing art. In addition to their own art, and their own careers, Friedman and Friedemann, who are married, in recent years decided to decamp to Lincoln, Nebraska, where Charley grew up, to transfer year-round New York city rents and costs into supporting their art life and not their daily life--and then travel back and forth to Brooklyn, in essence being bi-urban (not to mention reestablishing a cost-of-living to cost-of-art ratio more typical of the 80s). This “bridge” strategy is increasingly becoming how artists who choose to reside all over the US seek connection with the art centers of New York or LA, but live where they choose. A generation ago, the artist had to go to New York to be a starving artist to make it in art, today, many artists have different ideas. To exemplify their own “bridge” strategy, Friedman and Friedemann have opened, for two months per season, a project space in their studios in Lincoln, Fiendish Plots, hosting one person exhibitions of mid-career artists whose work they think may have been misread or overlooked with regard to their special capacity to expand the art-life dialog.
A perfect example of the kind of effort they are after took place at the opening of Flower Power, an exhibit of long-time New York-Toronto based artist Chrysanne Stathacos, in April. Stathacos has been practicing her form of “spiritual” art since the early 1990s (in fact, she reminded me that I reviewed her first one-person show in New York at the Lombard Fried Gallery). Stathacos first came to attention because her use of alter egos and staining techniques seemed to exemplify the groundlessness of much neoconceptual art, early 90s style. The more explicitly spiritualistic side of her art, however, was left alone by most positivist secular arty New Yorkers. But hers is an art whom time has caught up with, and her low-key non-sectarian practice, overlapping so intensely with ritual art, now works to her favor. At a time when performance art has largely reverted to traditional audience-performer dynamics, Stathacos remains dedicated to the idea of adding an unsettling performative element to gallery art as the path toward enlightenment. In her art, she touches off all sorts of ripples of reconsideration of the relationship between art and life, she also creates, in the time of her installation, a nexus that is activated by various audience responses.
This was, in fact, played out at her opening at Fiendish Plots on April 19, in a process witnessed by me from five to eight pm.
As some folks began to arrive, Stathacos was still busy at work on her floor mandala.
She had apparently only devised what form it might take in the immediately preceding half hour, thinking over the nature of the space. She therefore laid out the nodes, as it were, of her double helix, a mirror with a flower to crown it, situated several feet away from each other on the gallery floor. She later remarked that the form was funny, suggestive of breasts or eyes: speaking then of its welcoming-watching presence, two aspects of the goddess, tacitly. The walls of the gallery had three Stathacos fabric prints and five aura photographs, from other bodies of work also emphasizing the concepts of meaning residing in things and aura.
As people wandered in, they wondered what was going on: were they too early? is that the artist? did she not finish in time? has something gone wrong? That, in itself, created a frisson of host-guest issues that lent the work a kind of intruded-upon quality, as if some secret business were being spied upon, a sensation (like catching one’s hostess in the shower) always lit with a frisson of magic. This was an unexpected awkwardness, exacerbated by the presence of some children (but whose very presence symbolized that they might have ‘got’ the participative aspect better than the adults).
But as it became apparent that Stathacos was working at finishing up her mandala, and was not to be disturbed from her work, the energy sat back and people just watched her. She became, then, a kind of show: an artist at work, the gallery, momentarily, became an artist’s studio. An interesting thing about Stathacos’s practice is that while she bends and kneels you hardly have any sense of her picking petals from flowers and putting them down, all that happens as if invisibly, it is just there, part of her concentration. Also, as petals in the culture at large are often tossed or scattered in the context of romance or praise, Stathacos’ deliberateness, carefully placing each petal down, one at a time, signals another intention. As one began to marvel at her programmatic drive, a sense of intrusion resolved into one of invitation. People began to lose their awkwardness and warm up to the honor given them by being invited to be in the presence of a work of art in creation. Some folks asked her some questions, she answered some, but kept working.
As a crowd built, the space between artist and audience began then to spread out across the whole expanded field of the piece (to use Krauss’ term), building to some crescendo. Then, at one point, Stathacos took up a broom, to clean up some finishing touches. It was apparent that she was “done,” and applause broke out in the gallery. Momentarily, the floor became a stage. The modern artist, standing with her completed work, but as a psychopomp, with her guiding staff, welcoming us in.
Then Stathacos rested, she sat down by the wall near the mandalas, others sat with her, and in this conversation there was an easy give and take which again let the audience in on her project. Stathacos sat close up toward the top of her installation, as people sat with her they became part of the piece as experienced by others. It was also during this phase that Stathacos was interviewed by the leading art writer in town, his review was deeply informed by that from-the-inside-out-of-the-artwork focus on Buddhism and meditation. I also sat down with her then, ostensively to get off of my feet, precisely to be part of the piece and its evanescent physical record in time and space. Whatever colors people wore, sitting-in with Stathacos there, also related strangely to the piece, others in turn conversed over those correspondences. The mandala had begun to exert its assimilating power, drawing all in.
Stathacos had been given a pillow to kneel on as she installed, now she set it aside with her clipped rose stems, in a niche. This now became a sign, the site of her repose, it too became part of the installation, a coda, as it were, of the work.
Then the party began, it became like a “normal” opening, a lot of people talking to each other about this or that in art world politics. But the work took up a lot of floor space and so served a somewhat different purpose than art normally does in this situation. It took on the role of a presence, an entity in the room with us, that we were talking around. There was a distinct sense of a communal spirit, even among strangers. People wandered around through it, others took their own photos of it, several folks went into photo essay mode and reveled in attempts to capture its evanescent beauty. As a veteran of countless press previews, it struck me that the opening for a time had the aura of a press preview where everyone was the press (which is perhaps true in the instagram age). No one paused to meditate at the mandala, but that was part of it too, they related to it in a way that was quite different than they would had it been a “sculpture.” They did not walk around it, they walked in and through it: they had been invited to, so they did. Because it was a singular piece, to be short lived, there was an all but ritual dynamic more typical of spiritual spaces to viewing it. Anathema to the hygiene of American art, the lively viewer-art space created here had more in common with what the Germans call the Bilderwelt, the world of the picture--everyone having stepped through that looking glass.
All in all, then, the installational performance created a shifting relationship between viewer and work of art and artist, ranging from intrusion to invitation, and from outside to inside, from spectatorship to participation. This dynamic was no doubt enabled by the radical almost not-thereness of Stathacos’s long-standing simple practice: making mandalas of rose petals on the floor, period, nothing less, nothing more. The not-thereness of her piece not only made people’s question of what was going on here sharper, piling on the “is it art?” question too, but, when the door was opened--and because people generally have varied and deep relationships with flowers, and perhaps with meditation--made passing through it that much easier. For that reason, this was a subtle undermining of traditional materialistic postures taken up by your average art goer in “looking at” a work of art: a spirit space, conceived as a physical or relational/social space where materiality was made thinner, was opened up around the art, and those who were wise enough to, stepped in.
The therapeutic power of the installation will become more important over the course of the run of the exhibition, as, as the petals dry, the mandala becomes less permanent, and, in its last stages, people are explicitly invited to kneel down and blow the dried petals away. And so it is gone, as it is experienced.
Friedman and Friedemann as artists, one a performance artist and maker of absurd objects that twist us up in loops and knots in the perceptual process, the other exploring with greater intensity the role of remembered narratives and spaces in the elaboration of acculturative abstract painting, seek ways to alter traditional viewer-work of art relations in contemporary art. The experience of art is as important as the object of art. This is the essence of their Fiendish Plots choices too, the artists present other midcareer artists who have sought to alter the dynamics of the viewer-art relation in ways that unsettle the audience, but then, having raised their guard, invite them into an art experience. As artists, inviting other artists to exhibit, they have adopted a “platform” posture increasingly in evidence in art today, artists hosting other artists in the milieu of their art and art life. In the art, but more so in the experience around the art, a kind of invitational/hospitality space is created, which it is hoped will become the conceptual ground zero in the middle of every installation in their Fiendish Plots project space. And the notion of exhibiting artists they support in order to broaden the discourse is their own way of intensifying the art experience but also broadening the related art communities in which they participate.
Robert Mahoney is a veteran art critic who has written for Arts, Flash Art, Artnet, TIME OUT New York and numerous other publications. His interview, Inside-Outside, with artist Dudley Charles, was featured in the Winter 2013 issue of Black Renaissance Noire magazine of the Department of African Studies at New York University.view all articles from this author