The Brooklyn Rail

MAR 2014

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MAR 2014 Issue

“What the world looks like when it is loved”: JOSEPHINE HALVORSON Facings

On View
Sikkema Jenkins & Co.
January 23 – March 1, 2014
New York

Can you imagine anything more poignant than that meeting in which two wild rabbits happened upon a stuffed bunny in the English countryside, took a quick look and then dismissively decided, “He isn’t a rabbit at all! He isn’t real!” The Velveteen Rabbit in question sadly called after them: “Come back and play with me! Oh, do come back! I know I am Real!” Think of him watching their approach, knowing he can’t really move, but nevertheless believing he is as Real as them.

Josephine Halvorson, "Form (Facing In)," 2014. Oil on linen, 60 x 24 inches. Copyright: Josephine Halvorson. Courtesy of Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York.

We are very much like those rabbits hopping up to Josephine Halvorson’s paintings, encountering worn artifacts of “real life”—dirty shutters and sooty fireplaces—reassuring ourselves that it is safely Art. They are life-sized paintings: if “Woodshed Door” (2013) is not the exact dimensions of its real-life counterpart, it nevertheless feels the right size. Appreciating their painterly feats and triangulating them within art historical references are merely ways of avoiding the paintings’ profound reality. Josephine Halvorson is a painter of intimacy, which is as real as anything, but not what people mean when they talk about representing reality.

“Foundation” (2013) is a seven panel conceptual tour de force, presenting one side of a poured concrete wall. Concrete is a rocky stew that uses “forms” to mold it into shape. Sometimes these are just planks, to contain a sidewalk for example, holding it all together until the gloppy river hardens into stone. The forms used to make “Foundation”’s vertical surfaces are interlocking panels, strong enough to hold the tons of cement, but easily removable once the wall stands on its own. Halvorson’s canvases are sized to the forms—seven canvases adding up to a wall.

Josephine Halvorson, "Form (Facing Out)," 2013. Oil on linen 60 x 24". Copyright: Josephine Halvorson. Courtesy of Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York.

The form’s relief in concrete is not a superficial inscription, and instead makes visible a profound structural truth about the concrete foundation: the impression constitutes a fossilized embrace, one that is its very being. It is about how relationships between things produce them, and their ultimate psychological and material contingency. To deepen this reading, Halvorson also painted Form (Facing In) (2013) and Form (Facing Out) (2013)—two paintings that show the front and the back of one of the forms used to make the surfaces of Foundation. These works are painted in situ, directly, depicting the substructure of the artist's newly constructed upstate home, which also makes them the literal and metaphorical foundation of her life.

Halvorson’s paint is polysemic, it flutters between itself and the cement or mud or dust or soot or weathered house paint that it depicts, that it is. And in a deep way they really are these things. At the same time, the painting’s surface is buttery layers of low-relief marks, showing that they are brushstrokes too. Far from the cool colors of dispassionate observation, her nuanced palate is a study in simmered grays and burnished creams, velvety blacks and mottled roses—the kinds of colors warmed by the sunlight of affection. Halvorson’s paintings are not about “nostalgia” or the charm of rustic things, but about things that are part of human lives and become Real, that become living extensions of us. Talking in the gallery, she gestures toward “Woodshed Door”describing how it feels passing the original now at her house: “The door not only feels like the painting, but it feels like me, and I feel like it.” Walking through the gallery you can almost hear the old Skin Horse explaining to the Velveteen Rabbit what it means to be Real: “Generally by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out ... but these things don’t matter at all because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.” And it is only in this way that we should discuss Halvorson’s Realism: to become real through love.

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Jarrett Earnest

JARRETT EARNEST is a writer who lives in New York.


The Brooklyn Rail

MAR 2014

All Issues