Inattentive, for Real: The Unseen Realism of Josephine Halvorson
Realism should be a benign form in a contemporary context. How could an attempt of portraying actuality–humble and detached from the mega attention-seeking trends of the automated, electrically lit, and dayglo-saturated quirkiness dominating the art world–be taken as authentic and not just an attempt to lament lost forms of previous Americana? Josephine Halvorson’s work, at first glance, seems to usher the mind in reverse regarding the use of realism. Sensationalism and caricature have eclipsed such modes–not in a valid sense but by sheer oversaturation. Anyway, there is no absolute reason to dismiss the media-fueled postmodernism that keeps inventing ways to mock itself. But where does appreciation for bygone technique used today figure in? The line being proposed here is between the forms that center on exploiting attention and a form that draws from inattention.
With remarkable acuity Halvorson is able to make the traditional oil paint on her canvas impart a sense of actuality. “Shaker’s Shelf” and the “II” series all give you a sense of being part of reality. Only the subject is displaced. The subject is distant not only in the sense of being archaic, but distanced by the peculiarity of one giving these objects a kernel of consideration in an aesthetic sense. The wood planks from “Shaker’s Shelf” seem assessable enough. Then you’re looking into an emptiness that is not only the literally bare-of-content shelf but the removal of the impulse to give attention to an object. One gives in to minimalist simplicity that lingers on the margins of being realist or abstract. The “II” series evokes similar reactions; comprised of four painting of some industrial relic, almost in a black minimalism except for ocher oxide stains and tiny flecks of orange rust on the iron fixtures, the “II” series seems absolutely real but is entirely detached from the context of its situation–other than existing as images. The sharp geometric angles and bold lines dissimulate what functionality may have been associated with the object, postponing the sense of reality and shifting it into ambiguity.
Halvorson applies inattention with such clarity the same concept follows in the use of language. Her most recent exhibit at the Galerie Nelson-Freeman in Paris featured “Room 441” and another series “Wilmott”, which both touched on the presence of words–or rather touched on the words’ condition of being obscured in the physical reality they were intended to represent. The days of blackboards have relinquished to an age of PowerPoint projections, but “Room 441” harkens back to the era of smeared chalk dust. In a mimetic process, a veritable tabula rasa, one scrapes chalk to spell out words– so many, that like memory, they must be removed to make space for more. The significance of writing the words on the board, the reality of communication, is displaced, and what is left is the activity of the words being obliterated to dust smears on a dark, vast, and empty background. All that remains is a vague hint at a diagram–purpose lost–and puerile antics. The “Wilmott” series addresses language similarly, but on a graver level, as literal grave monuments with words etched in stone. That figurative language, that image of the word withstanding the test of time, is removed. Don’t expect a granite tombstone to remain eternally in memoriam, as Halvorson elucidates with blotches of lichen clustering up and covering letters; the natural molting of the stone eroding words to leave the past as illegible and detached.
Halvorson very simply puts to question what attracts attention, and thereof what meaning is associated with such objects–if there is any and it’s not all debris endlessly drifting past the self-centered persona. Perhaps what is most prominent in her work is the realization of impermanence. Concerned whether such a traditional form is valid in a postmodern context, Halvorson is reinvigorating what was once real art by saying realism is more than what it meant then, and realism can be truer to expression now, more than the blinking arrays and toxic colored holocausts that are being pimped. The series “Shutters”, from the Paris exhibit, also may wrap up the sense of inattention perceived in her work; each one, shut tight to block the view, constitutes the content. Again the subject is denied.
- Howard Halverson