Defied Logic: Samira Abbassy, Whitney Harris, Mark Milroy, Bea Scaccia
May 1 through May 31, 2021
Curated by Nina Mdivani
By DEBORAH FRIZZELL, May 2021
“Defied Logic” is the title of an exhibition curated by Nina Mdivani at Ivy Brown Gallery in Chelsea. Mdivani references aspects of Surrealism which she often finds running through contemporary painting, sculpture, and printmaking: an emphasis on ambiguity and uncertainty, a probing of dream and fantasy, the mining of inner worlds and psychological states, and the contradictions and paradoxes of contemporary life within the effects of rapid globalization and continuing wars. Our time defies logic. Mdivani makes her case in the four-person exhibition featuring Samira Abbassy, Whitney Harris, Mark Milroy and Bea Scaccia. The semi-raw, textured space of Ivy Brown Gallery is a perfect foil for bringing together works that question the very nature of beauty and ugliness, reveal intuitive longings, uncanny juxtapositions, and archaeologies of prehistory and eternal returns.
The French avant-gardist Andre Breton (1896-1966) wrote the First Manifesto of Surrealism in 1924. During the First World War, Breton was an auxiliary physician with a critical interest in neuropsychiatry as a way to treat shell-shocked war veterans in revealing their trauma. Tapping into Freud’s theories of the subconscious and the use of experimental language and automatic writing to unlock trauma, Breton sought “pure psychic automatism,” unedited by reason or moral codes. The French poet Guillaume Apollinaire, who was seriously injured in the war, coined the term ‘surrealism’ in 1917, describing emotional states that exceeded reality itself. Breton sought a total transformation in the way people think, breaking down barriers between inner and outer worlds, changing our perceptions of reality. Liberating the unconscious would free people from the shackles of logic and reason, social mores and moralizing codes of behavior.
While the original Surrealist artists were male, in the 1930s, many women artists were fascinated by the movement’s experimentation and anti-academicism, and by its emphasis on exploring personal, bodily experiences. As outsiders, women were laying claim to their own subjectivity from the inside out. They could imagine and feel their own bodies, the body’s organic, erotic and maternal realities. They established new vocabularies of form and open-ended meanings. Artists as different as Kay Sage, Meret Oppenheim, Claude Cahun, Maya Deren, Aileen Agar, Remedios Varo, Dorothea Tanning and Leonora Carrington gave Surrealism both deepened and broader contexts and interpretations. By 1949, Simone de Beauvoir would write in The Second Sex, that a woman’s subjectivity is trying to do what comes naturally in (male) subjectivity, which is to assert itself as the center of the universe. Beauvoir considered the struggle for women to achieve subjectivity and transcendence within patriarchy the central existentialist problem par excellence.
Samira Abbassy’s work emerges from her Arab-Iranian heritage and emigre upbringing in the UK. Her oil on panel paintings, collages, charcoal drawings and sculpture draw from pan-religious iconography to create layered figurative works subtly reflecting constantly shifting cultural contexts. Her archetypal figures are often mirrored or doubled suggesting introspection, inner worlds and fragmented identity. The rich patterns, flowing braids and bodily x-ray motifs speak of psycho-emotional states and migrant histories. Oscillating among multiple cultures simultaneously, Abbassy often straddles differing sign systems, idioms, cultural codes, and notions of perception. As with earlier Surrealist artists, personal experience is transformed into broader languages of art, myth and cultural frameworks. Visible in Double Blind is the mirror, reflecting only eyes that stare at the viewer, implicating us, while the woman holding the mirror is wearing a black hood with oval slits revealing peering eyes looking to her left. She stares at a cartouche with a couple embracing and passionately entwined within a halo of white flames. Is this scene an eternal triangle on the nature of love and betrayal? Or is she exploring her own body’s vulnerability or her consciousness? Do we see a reality of her own naked body versus her interior perception of reality behind the veil? Is there a dialogic “self” emphasizing her inner conversation between a constructed social being and the powerful forces of instinctual life? Or is this an internal questioning about the very nature of desire, delusion, truth, renunciation, trauma or grief?
Bea Scaccia, born in Italy, also has a deep understanding of art history and the timelessness of human struggles and contradictions. Trained as a realist painter, Scaccia experiments with combinations of media including painting, drawing, animation and writing to create narrative slices that contain poetic ambiguities. Her large-scale acrylic on canvas paintings such as That night in bed, are seductive in their painstaking attention to detail and surface textures, yet their meanings are mysterious. Scaccia plies tonal ranges fluidly from black to white in a sculptural manner. Ebbing and flowing forms, like hillocks and valleys are enigmatic but evoke bodies undulating. Surfaces and facades of wigs and clothing seem to be surrogates for the body, but genderless. Tightly curled wigs and silks and satins have historical resonances from the 18th century French aristocracy’s taste for elaborate wigs, clothing and decoration before the Revolution. Wigs are worn by judges in many cultures, remnants from a colonial past, and wigs are worn in religious piety. Associations abound and the play of simultaneous absence and presence, hidden meanings and codes lends a dreamlike quality that the Surrealists would have recognized.
Whitney Harris is a young artist whose ink drawings, linocuts and ceramic sculpture explore Beauvoir’s notion of developed subjectivity and transcendence. Harris’s women fully realize their sexuality, sense of “self” and power, and they feel comfortable from the inside outward to meet our gaze. They exude a non-dualistic body/mind as the center of the universe. In her ceramic sculpture, Cassiopeia (from Greek mythology, the vain queen of Ethiopia who boasted of her unrivaled beauty) there is an echo of Helene Cixous’s “ecriture feminine,” in which women write from their own experience of the body, departing from rules that govern syntax of thought, and write with “jouissance,” a disorderly pleasure of the diffused eroticism of female body experience. Between specificity and abstraction, Harris’s figures embody active dreaming, a sense of interior worlds and quiet contemplation. Cassiopeia reclines in her fully conscious sensuality as a reposte to Matisse’s 1907 Reclining Nude.
Mark Milroy embeds in his expressive paintings a keen knowledge of art history and an intensity of focus, while mining everyday subjects that are pushed to the surface from unsettling or disjointed psychological states. Rich paint surfaces and textures imply mood aided by decisive cropping, distorted spatial relationships and color palette. There is a disruptive “push” toward the picture plane as in Philip Guston’s figure paintings that seems to impinge on the viewer’s space and her physical/psychological presence. In Still Life with Snake, it’s difficult not to seek out the snake and to find it presented to us on a decorative plate tilted up along with a wood-grained table top, completed with a painted landscape and villa on the lower right. A plant and greenery stick up straight from behind the table top’s middle and a spray of flowers fly in from the extreme right. The profiles of two figures peer at each other, a blond woman appears from behind the greenery and man’s cropped profile is mask-like, painted in green strokes, the green-eyed monster. A veritable Garden of Eden is already disrupted by discord and disillusionment, presumably by the revelations of truth and reality. The painting is a powerful allegory held within a seemingly everyday still life (nature morte). Again, the Surrealists would have had a kinship with the irony, symbolism and paradoxes of desire played out in Milroy’s painting.
Nina Mdivani has brought together four very distinctive artists who we may not have suspected had underlying threads spun-out from beneath the history of Surrealism’s primary concerns. Our surreal world that defies logic has a kinship with the destructive forces unleashed by the First World War. It was called The Great War, the war to end all wars, but it was the real beginning of the twentieth century. Perhaps we need a new art historical term for this thread of Surrealism: Post-Pandemic Surrealism. WM
Deborah Frizzell Ph.D. was Adjunct Professor of Art History at William Paterson University (2004-2021) in New Jersey, where she taught modern and contemporary art history and theory. She is Editor of the Arts Section of Cultural Politics (Duke University Press) and writes regularly about art for journals such a Woman’s Art Journal and Depart. A former Curator at the New Britain Museum of American Art, CT, her recent exhibitions include Outcasts: Women in the Wilderness, Glyndor Gallery, Wave Hill, Bronx, NY (2017); The Body Is Present: Women at Work (NJ: Berrie Center for the Arts, Ramapo College, 2013); Whose World Is This? Jane Dickson and Charlie Ahearn (NJ: Ben Shahn Gallery, William Paterson University, 2012); Fluidity, Layering, Veiling: Perspectives From South Asian and Middle Eastern Women Artists (CT: Gallery of Contemporary Art, Sacred Heart University, 2011).
Her books include Humphrey Spender’s Humanist Landscapes: Photo-Documents, 1932-1942 (Paul Melon Centre for Studies in British Art & Yale University Press, 1997); Ann Chernow: Fictitious Icons (Gallery of Contemporary Art at Sacred Heart University & Queens Museum of Art, NY, 1998).
Her articles on feminist artist Nancy Spero (1926-2009) include “Search and Destroy; Nancy Spero’s War Series, 1966-1970,“ Cultural Politics (March 2020) 16:1; Nancy Spero’s War Maypole: Take No Prisoners,” Cultural Politics (Fall 2008); “Nancy Spero’s Museum Incursions: Isis on the Threshold,” Woman’s Art Journal v. 27, no.2 (Fall/Winter 2006) and “Alchemical Secrets: Spero’s Fragmentation and Recreation,” Nancy Spero: A Continuous Present (Kiel: University of Kiel & Dusseldorf: Richter Verlag, 2002).
Other Articles include “Positions in Solidarity: Voices and Images from the U.S, Women’s Marches,” Cultural Politics, Duke University Press, Volume 13, Issue3, November, 2017. Article/Interview: “Ghosts of Migration: An Interview with Samira Abbassy,” Cultural Politics (November 2021) 17:3.view all articles from this author