Beyond Narcissus, Curated by Soko Phay-Vakalis
11-03 45th Avenue
Long Island City, NY 11101
November 20 – January 30, 2006
Immediately to the left as one enters the Dorsky Gallery in Long Island City is a hypnotic carnival-like mirror made by the French artist Philippe Ramette. Punctuated within Its bent polished surface are several protrusions, which on closer inspection create perfect miniature reflections while the rest of the object dramatically distorts the entire space in front of it.
These precise reflections within Ramette’s piece are a fitting metaphor for the carefully articulated themes of the mirror in this exhibition titled Beyond Narcissus.The show’s French curator Soko Phay-Vakalis has been working on the mirror in contemporary art for almost a decade and this exhibition for over two years. Her focus is specific: “non-narcissistic” mirrors that attempt to move beyond mimetic illusion. She describes the goal of the exhibition: “…to reveal the different uses of the mirror in private spaces and public places, explore new reflections (silver paint, sheet metal), and reconsider the issue of identity in new approaches to the world and to memory.”
Phay-Vakalis establishes four thematic categories into which she places the work:the mirror in contemporary vanities, mirrors and displacements, empty mirrors, and abyssal mirrors. These categories become the lens with which to understand the individual works and thus the entire show. As a result of this very specific approach great care went into choosing each work. The outcome is an exciting combination of New York based artists like John L. Moore, Dennis Adams and Alfredo Jaar and French artists like Ramette, Pascal Pinaud, and Philippe Segond, who have rarely been seen in the US.
Both Adams and Jaar’s work are used to illustrate the theme of “the mirror in contemporary vanities.” Adams piece titled Vanity for Patty Hearst (1997) replicates the kind of vanity found in a dressing room. It has a shelf and two vertical rows of four spherical light bulbs on either side of a mirror, except here the mirror is darkened glass making the reflected image distant and ghostly. The title connects to a shared memory of someone who was once visible but who now is absent. The faintness of the image in the fake mirror evokes the distance of this memory and places the viewer within its history.
Similarly, Jaar in his work simply titled Mirror (2004) addresses the viewers’ conscience and self-awareness. At first glance his piece looks like an ordinary mirror in an aluminum frame, but at close distance the viewer’s self-image shifts to an image of a dirty mine worker. It’s a shocking reversal from an image of the self to an image of the other, of someone not considered, of someone forgotten, who represents the invisible production of the disenfranchised populations of the world.
Ferran Martin, a Spanish artist now living in New York, presents three performances displayed on video titled El Modular. These works represent the theme of mirrors and displacement. In the performances Martin wears a mirrored cube on his head and wanders around the Cathedral of St. John the Divine and the Queens Museum of Art. While wearing this custom headgear the artist cannot see. He essentially becomes blind, but yet reflects everything around him. There is a sadness and contradiction in seeing so many images created on the artists head but knowing he can see none of them. There is also a sense of fear that at any moment the artist in his blindness might smash his perfect headgear into hundreds of little pieces.
The richly hued blue painting of John L. Moore is positioned in the theme ofEmpty Mirrors. At first appearance it looks like a completely abstract composition, but soon one notices that the space within the large vertical oval shape just off-center to the right appears to subtly reflect some other part of the blue field. This oval becomes a separate space connected to but distinct from the rest of the image. As a result it appears as a void within the composition and amid the blue field it carries with it a feeling of loss and loneliness.
Abyssal Mirrors is the last of Phay-Vakalis’ categories and it includes the paintings of Pascal Pinaud and Philippe Segond. Pinaud for his work titled Blanc Perle Chrysler, 01A14 Juillet-Octobre (2001) uses automotive paint on sheet metal for his monochromatic vertical image. This painting, with its shiny white surface and curious random white and brown accumulations, he describes as a Chrysler parked under a tree with bird droppings. Here the gallery recontextualizes this work and the specific subject vanishes. The effect is a simulation, a kind of mirroring of reality through the work of art.
Segond’s painting titled Detail 29 “Miroir”(2001) is a haunting double abstraction made with silvery metallic pigment and other industrial paints that don’t easily mix together. Segond made these paintings in a matter of minutes by applying the paint and allowing the various pigments to react on the surface. He accepts the basic fact that paintings become visible only as a result of reflected light. Thus Segond paints the idea of the mirror, it’s shimmering surface and radiant glow. His paintings are a surrogate for the real mirror and ultimately they suggest its disappearance.
In 1936 Jacques Lacan presented his concept of the mirror stage. This established the fundamental importance of the mirror in defining the ego through its dependence on an image of the self in relation to external objects or the other.Phay-Vakalis acknowledges this seminal psychoanalytic proposition, but outlines her own thesis. She addresses the specific experience of the mirror in our current moment in history: “The disappearance of the world’s clarity goes hand in hand with the loss of the subject.” She accepts that mirroring is no longer strictly mimetic—it is a constant simultaneous experience of our technological age and occurs so frequently it often goes unnoticed.
As a whole the show hinges on Phay-Vakalis’ rigorous approach to the subject. If all of the work and the related texts were studied carefully it would be hard for anyone to look at a mirror the same way again. There is no question that this is excellent scholarship, but sometimes it places too much pressure on the individual works and feels like a level of mediation, particularly with this installation, that diminishes a greater potential interaction between the different pieces. Yet here it is worthwhile to consider that this is a long-term project—a website has just been launched () and future exhibitions are planned. With this in mind the show feels like a beginning, the first exhibition of something much bigger still to come that will extend beyond the walls of the Dorsky Gallery into undiscovered territory.