Live Fully and Well: Art at Slag Gallery in a Time of Trauma
With Passion at Slag Gallery
June 3 to July 17, 2016
56 Bogart Street (between Harrison and Grattan streets)
Brooklyn, 212 967 9818
“A love ethic presupposes that everyone has the right to be free, to live fully and well. To bring a love ethic to every dimension of our lives, our society would need to embrace change.” –bell hooks
I went to see “With Passion,” the current group show on view at Slag Gallery in Bushwick, Brooklyn, prepared to be absorbed in something other than headlines. The despairing news cycle had been unfolding that a male Stanford University student, recently convicted of raping an unconscious female behind a campus dumpster, had been spared his recommended prison sentence by the presiding judge. The white, former star athlete Brock Turner was instead sentenced to only six months in the county jail, a slap on the wrist for the degradation of a woman’s body.
Passion and compassion are twinned themes and philosophical conceits — emotions that, living in this strange and crestfallen moment, seem especially worthy of contemplation. The Latin root of both words is pati, meaning “to suffer,” which suggests that by choosing to plumb these emotions, we can better understand personal and collective grief, and use it in the service of activating meaningful change in the face of injustice. In “With Passion,” five international artists probe what it is to be ardent, how that fervor stimulates a response in viewers, and the ethics, on the part of the audience, of taking that response out into the world.
Six drawings by Erika Bagylas, selected from a larger series entitled Don’t Become a Statistic! (2013–2014) open the show. Bagylas hails from Hungary; existence during the nation’s three-decade, Soviet-supported Kádár era is often the subject of her interrogation. She refers to the extreme censorship experienced by Hungarians during the period as “social trauma as life situation.” Bagylas frequently incorporates performance into her practice, which is reflected even in the static works on view here. Some are theatrical, as in The Circus Belongs to Everyone (2014) where two figures walk on stilts and juggle, respectively. Others exhibit a more mournful quality. In The Supporters (2014), one woman rests her hand on the back of another, who in turn rests her hand on a larger figure, covered with a sheet like a ghost. Perpetrators (2014) depicts two bodies each standing on a box, facing each other and pointing their fingers at one another like guns in a chilling intimation of violence. In each drawing the human forms are drawn in delicate crosshatching on black paper with white ink, with an empty space where the body’s head should be. Those blank heads seem indicative of individuals from whom something primal has been stolen. Whether that comes at the hands of a totalitarian regime, or a lone perpetrator, the pain is evident and it transcends Hungary’s political history, resonating universally.
Some of the strongest works in the show are those that directly counteract suffering. Socially engaged artist Jody Wood’s video work In the Black Box (Looking Out) (2016) and its corresponding photographic series, Client Abstraction (2016), present here, are derived from a project she completed earlier this year. In Choreographing Care (2016), Wood ran a workshop where a theater troupe taught social and care workers to make use of warm up and cool down techniques actors use in preparation to play characters in agonizing situations. Workers in these therapeutic professions experience a high degree of “secondary trauma” as a result of the constant support they give to others enduring extreme circumstances. In the two-channel video, actors demonstrate these methods on one screen while on the second Dionisio Cruz and Jan Cohen-Cruz, a married couple who are a therapist and a drama professor respectively, discuss secondary trauma as it relates to each of their professions. Hearing them relay their personal experiences while simultaneously watching the actors demonstrate the exercises is stirring. One actress, lying supine, has her hair stroked by another while a third gently caresses her legs and feet with a soft cloth. The love and mindfulness put into these efforts is plain, and underscored by the Cruz couple’s intimate discussion of the significance of emotional release. Soon, the woman to whom these ministrations are being applied is sobbing cathartic tears.
Elsewhere, the work of Masha Zusman, one of two Israeli artists featured, proves restorative. In her labor-intensive process Zusman makes engravings with a mechanical pen, and draws meticulously in ballpoint on found wood. While she might be best known for her works completed on immense, wooden packing crates, a selection of her smaller pieces on discarded wood panels is showcased here. To her materials she has added Hammerite, paint intended to be applied directly to metals. The decision to use this substance, which is not readily available in the United States, is inspired, as the color it achieves on wood is lush and sensuous. In Untitled (2015), gold Hammerite flows across the wood panel in creamy hills and valleys. It is tactile, almost three-dimensional, and I had the distinct sensation of wanting to run my hands over it. Zusman has engraved the top half of the panel with an intricate design reminiscent of a William Morris textile pattern, which she then colored completely with brick-red ballpoint. The work is fervid, even erotic in its juxtaposition of color and texture. In an exhibition that demands much sober contemplation, Zusman’s work is a welcome reminder of the tangible, the carnal, and the wonder that exists in the world.
“Human existence is so fragile a thing and exposed to such dangers that I cannot love without trembling.” Co-curators Naomi Lev and Jovana Stokic open their curatorial statement with Simone Weil’s timely words. When I sat down to begin writing this after a couple days of reflection, I opened my computer to discover that overnight a gunman had entered a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, shot dead 49 people and wounded another 53. It was the worst shooting massacre in modern American history and I am despondent, marinating in the reinforced knowledge that so many different kinds of bodies can be so easily and callously disposed of in this country. I cannot separate this from the experience of seeing “With Passion.” To be passionate is to be moved by strong feelings or beliefs; to be compassionate is to be compelled to act because of the suffering of others. This small show in its small space is nonetheless a booming visual manifesto that calls not only for empathy, but also for revolutionary, loving action in defiance of the hatred and cruelty that have become familiar cultural markers. May it resonate.