14. April 2016
21c Museum Hotel, Durham
North Carolina
Alice Gray Stites, Museum Director, Chief Curator
Off-Spring: New Generations
A survey of artists' investigations of ritual.
Children are literally saddled with the sadness and possibly the sins of their off-screen elders in Gottfried Helnwein’s haunting portrait of a child in military uniform. Helnwein’s doe-eyed child is half in shadow, one side of the face possibly bruised; the design on her jacket lapel suggesting a military uniform.
Untitled (Modern Sleep)
oil and acrylic on canvas, 2005, 199 x 132 cm / 78 x 51''

About the Exhibition

Rituals—religious and cultural, institutional and domestic—provide the thematic infrastructure for OFF-SPRING: New Generations. Exploring the development of both personal and group identity, childhood, family, history, and gender politics, these sculptures, paintings, photographs, and videos employ iconographic imagery to reveal how we learn to live, love, work, and dream in the 21st century. In the family home, at the wedding altar, or in the classroom, within the fantasy of childhood play or the familiarity of grown-up habit, these new, old narratives generate a spectrum of meditations on the contemporary construction of self and society.

The weight of both the future and the past encumbers much of the variously angelic, endangered, and enigmatic figures featured in OFF-SPRING. Imaginary play is rendered as both enchanting and uncanny in photographs by Adriana Duque, Loretta Lux, Vee Speers, Laetitia Soulier, Oleg Dou, Anthony Goicolea Nathalia Edenmont, and others. Both Duque and Lux transform their young subjects to create painterly portraits that reference art history, alluding to Rembrandt, Velázquez, Piero della Francesca, and others, while the make-up and costumes worn by models in works by Dou, Speers, and Edenmont belie more than the joy of dress-up, their faces and poses introducing the presence of the uncanny. Drawing on memories of her own anguished teenage years, when her mother’s death left her orphaned, Nathalia Edenmont casts a young model as her doppelganger, dressed and posed as if awaiting or recovering from a transformative rite of passage, captured in color-saturated images of macabre beauty. The rites and trials of adolescence animate Anthony Goicolea’s boy-world, in which mysteriously uniformed, hooded, and masked young males participate in group-rituals that range from fairytale-like to menacing. The youthful Tree Dwellers may be engaged in temporary play or permanent encampment; the boys gathered round Fireside are presided over by a single, male adult in an image derived from Goicolea’s film, Kidnap, which depicts mysterious, ritual-like events as both innocuous and ominous.

Guy Ben-Ner projects a playful imagination in his video narratives, which feature his own young family in fantastical scenarios from literature, history, and nature. Ella—a story of an Ostrich Chick features the artist’s daughter and other family members in ostrich costumes, navigating their way through a wilderness that is actually New York’s Central Park. In naturalist imitation of ostrich locomotion, the costumes are worn backwards, making movement awkward, especially for the young lead. Ben-Ner’s home movie explores contemporary family dynamics and our sanitized relationship with the natural world, while alluding to the burdens borne by children cast in roles, on stage and off.

Children are literally saddled with the sadness and possibly the sins of their off-screen elders in Gottfried Helnwein’s haunting portrait of a child in military uniform, and in the bronze and wooden sculptures of Gehard Demetz and Sofie Muller. Helnwein’s doe-eyed child is half in shadow, one side of the face possibly bruised; the design on her jacket lapel suggesting a military uniform. Provocatively titled How You Reacted was Right and It is Warmer Now, Demetz’s toy soldier and placid girl-doll are fixed in place by symbols of industry and religious worship—a gas can and a crucifix—unconsenting conscripts into adulthood. For Muller’s Clarysse, the battlefield is the schoolroom, where seated for eternity at her wooden desk, she is rendered headless. Some external tragedy or interior conflict—the boredom, the shame, the struggle to succeed and conform that may attend those years in school—has erased her visage, her mind, leaving only an oval shadow burned into the desktop.

Potential trauma awaits the little girl who jumps rope through the decaying, decadent, and menacing interiors of Laurie Lipton’s Haunted Doll House. This large-scale, detailed drawing is presented in three dimensions, offering an immersive vision of the artist’s memories, fears, and imaginings. Lipton plumbs the depths of her psyche in visions of domestic terror: here, the everyday rituals of mealtime, playtime, and bedtime are haunted by shadowy, menacing figures, spider webs, skulls, liquid and dread oozing through floorboards.

The history and symbolism of marital rituals are both exposed and transformed in works by Asya Reznikov, Beth Moysés, and Angela Ellsworth, addressing a broad range of issues within the metaphoric constraints of tradition. These object-based works reference what brides have worn and carried to and from the altar, in search of a blessing, a partner, a new self or new life. Reznikov’s Packing Bride enacts the nostalgia and anticipation of displacement. Illuminating the mental and emotional state of transition experienced by immigrants and travelers, Reznikov fills a suitcase with objects and images that constitute bridal “necessities”—items that may fulfill the bride’s desire for material and psychological preparedness as she embarks on a new life in a new world. The brides featured in Beth Moysés’ still and moving images are embarking on a transformative journey both physical and emotional. Reconstructing Dreams creates a new ritual: female survivors of domestic abuse walk together through the streets of Montevideo, Uruguay, to the central public square, where they sit and embroider the patterns of the lines in their hands on their gloves, discarding their past and wedding themselves to new lives.

The women invoked in Angela Ellsworth’s sculpture, Eliza and Emily, are bound to each other: the pin-sharp straps of these19th-century-style bonnets, fashioned from thousands of pearl corsage pins, are continuous, holding them forever in place, opposing and supporting one another. A descendant of Mormon prophet Lorenzo Snow, Ellsworth examines women in the context of fundamentalist Mormonism, and the ritual, symbolism, and constraint inherent in trappings such as Seer Bonnets. These unwearable bonnets embody sister wives, representatives of a still-practiced polygamist tradition of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, and reference the prophet Joseph Smith’s use of “seer stones”—stones he believed to be imbued with divine power. The circular designs on Ellsworth’s bonnets allude to Smith’s visionary stones. “The circles are my idea of giving the women wearing the bonnets their own vision and the possibility of seeing and translating things.”

Rituals often invoke the collision of innocence and guilt, purity and corruption, life and death. Mohau Modisakeng’s video, Inzilo, is inspired by a South African mourning tradition, a period of grieving during which the mourner is committed to wearing black clothing for up to six to twelve months. A ceremonial disrobing marks the end of mourning and the transformation of the bereaved; the clothing is burned, leaving only ashes. A multi-disciplinary artist whose work addresses the complex history of his country, here Modisakeng performs a distillation of this ritual, paying homage both to cultural tradition and to the potential for a rebirth, for transformation.

Artists today appropriate such ritual mise-en-scene to honor or to expose or subvert a conventional assertion of theological belief. In Carlos and Jason Sanchez’s Baptism, smiling adults gaze at the baby as it is christened with blood. Is the image an indictment of Christian tradition, or an honest envisioning of the rite—the baby sealed by the blood of Christ? Art historical precedents for such imagery featured the same cast—Jesus, Mary, apostles, saints, and other known Biblical characters. For her Pietà, Sam Taylor-Johnson cast herself as the grieving Madonna, and the actor Robert Downey, Jr. as the dead Christ. The camera’s shutter cord is visible, stretching down the steps like a vein, emptying life from the limp body. While the poses mimic pieta works by Renaissance masters Michelangelo and Bernini, Taylor-Johnson draws attention not to the sitters’ assigned roles, but to the artifice on display, and to their identities, their celebrity—captured and enhanced by camera-wielding media.

The family portrait is reimagined by Julie Nord, Sebastiaan Bremer, Hans Op de Beeck, and Robert Pettena; its conventional documentarian function transformed into illustrations of fantasy, memory, and newly emerging family structures. The pale, wide-eyed faces in Nord’s pen and watercolor portraits might belong in a late 19th-century parlor, but for the color literally dripping from their features. The Niece, Unknown Relative (Wilbur), and A Distant Aunt evoke Victorian imagery, the world of Charles Adams, the brothers Grimm, and more: theirs is an eerie family tableau of typologies, not individuals. Bremer culls personal family albums for images of youth—here, his and his father’s—applying pen and paint to the surfaces of these idealized portraits to emphasize both beauty and mortality, as their ethereal features are disintegrating.

Robert Pettena and Hans Op de Beeck’s videos invite the viewer to a ritual repast—an outdoor banquet and a series of ceremonial meals—in which the expected conventions of behavior and time are subverted, separating a known ritual from recognizable reality. Both humor and pathos are present in these vivid tableaux of contemporary cultural and social practices, imbuing the everyday with the import of history, of myth.

Images of daily domesticity—the rituals of habit and intimacy—reveal a persistent conflict between self and social norms. Staged in rural, often bleak settings, Christa Parravani’s imagery narrates her life—a life she shared intimately with her twin sister. Together, they survived a difficult, peripatetic childhood to pursue creative careers in which their visions and voices are deeply intertwined. Parravani’s photographs of herself and her twin, and of a bride and groom, illustrate the complex synchronicity of the ties that bind: we seek to be together but alone, alike but unique. The longing to be both intimate and independent is also enacted by the couple riding nowhere on leonardogillesfleur’s Irreconcilable Differences, demonstrating how we long for change and consistency at once, and how individual drives may conflict with the structural norms of a sanctioned union.

Indeed, all intimate relationships are subject to change from internal and exterior forces. In her Farmer’s Daughter Cycle, Lauren Argo performs a dreamlike homage to the complex life cycle of her family’s small tobacco farm. For generations, her elders’ dependence on the land formed traditions and responsibilities that engendered both masculine and feminine roles for each family member. As she enacts the shifting identities of a tobacco worker, daughter, and sister, Argo performs a process of self-inquiry at work in many lifelong laborers as the source of their livelihood and heritage runs dry.

Legacy also informs Chris Radtke’s Progeny (2) pink, a nylon mesh sculpture that is both a representational and abstract portrait of her granddaughter, scaled to the child’s four-year old body. The diaphanous material evokes sacramental garments (a veil, a shroud), while the geometry of the form invokes an art-historical reference to Minimalism. Created in Radtke’s studio, Progeny is the off-spring of both self and art, body and mind, a dual portrait of artist and subject.

Lived experience of human family dynamics—and the social and political institutions born of traditional patriarchy—often combines dependence and destruction. Josephine Taylor’s large-scale Bomb Landscape series depicts women and babies, men and animals, set in a post-apocalyptic world, vying for sustenance and survival. Their delicately drawn forms are imposing and formidable; undefined fear and ferocity animates these compelling scenes. “My drawings rely on their purity to attract the viewer,” explains the artist, “and then abuse that power by revealing something terrifying. The omnipresence of violence in my work emphasizes the partnership between love and hatred that I experienced growing up.” Taylor’s bodies merge and mutate, their fluids flow freely out and between them; modern-day madonnas spurt milk like stigmata, redefining the mythology of maternal nurture as costly sacrifice.

Reimagining tradition creates opportunities for identity to transcend the constraints of ritual and role-play, especially within the crucible of childhood wherein the self is first formed. Laetitia Soulier describes the characters in her Matryoshka series as approximately eight years old, at a point where thoughts shift seamlessly between the real and imagined, the rational and fantastical. Deployed into dream-like spaces where they appear larger than life in comparison to the miniature objects that surround them, the girls are at once stand-ins for characters in a dark fairytale and playful children. These environments, says Soulier, are “their toy, their home, their childhood, their adulthood, the space between their past and their future.” Inspired by 19th-century Russian Matryoshka nesting dolls, whose stackable shapes follow a telescoping mathematical pattern, Soulier’s visions of girlhood suggest that consciousness and identity are always in flux.

Carrie Mae Weems adopts and updates Classical Greek mythology in May Flowers, a trio of beribboned African American girls, framed in tondo, Renaissance-style as three contemporary graces. The central figure’s gaze is direct and frontal: their roles—as muses and more—are neither imposed nor fixed, but self-asserted, reframing, reclaiming the stage of art history. Weems’ seminal Kitchen Table Series presents domestic drama as the central stage for re-envisioning gender and family roles, with the artist cast in the center, empowered to embody, represent, and speak for a breadth of humanity:

“I use myself simply as a vehicle for approaching the question of power. It is never about me; it’s always about something larger,” says the artist. “I use my own constructed image as a vehicle for questioning ideas about the role of tradition, the nature of family, monogamy, polygamy, relationships between men and women, between women and children, and between women and other women—underscoring the critical problem and the possible resolves.”

Daily rituals and communal rites continue to shape identity and define the politics of family and society; in OFF-SPRING, transformations of iconic imagery from spheres both sacred and profane generate a new power, the power of potential and change.

Alice Gray Stites, Museum Director, Chief Curator

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