On ViewOn Stellar Rays
September 7 – October 12, 2014
Those unpracticed at the art of “negative capability”—Keats’s celebrated term for the capacity to embrace uncertainty, ambiguity, and doubt “without any irritable reaching after fact and reason”—would do well to steer clear of Zipora Fried. In her latest show at On Stellar Rays, the artist’s third with the gallery, Fried’s characteristically protean exploration of the more dimly lit regions of consciousness achieves its most trenchant appeal yet to the transformative power of darkness and obscurity. Allusions to the moon, that guardian of the night so laden with symbolic significance, pervade this show, and, depending on one’s ability to quell the protestations of language and logic, the reward is the emergence of a kind of lunar consciousness replete with a wealth of rich psychic content.
Although one doesn’t make a literal descent into the gallery’s one-room space, such is implied by the unconventional installation of the 20 works on view. The pieces, which range from large-scale graphite and oil pastel drawings to photographic prints and a video, are arranged on the walls in irregular arrays that extend from floor to ceiling, making for an immersive, cave-like experience. A mournful song emanating from the video piece fills the space with a heavy sonic presence that, several cycles in, becomes incantatory and plangent. Even before engaging the individual works, one is filled with a sense of intensified meaning—and of foreboding. One has entered terra incognita.
Both within the individual pieces and among their carefully orchestrated interrelations, Fried’s signature practice of densifying and occluding—of adding layer upon layer to veil and obscure—reaches an unprecedented fever pitch. Several of her large-scale graphite drawings featuring dense accumulations of ritualistic gestural strokes are now overlaid with bright biomorphic clusters made with oil pastel, introducing a discomfiting visual and cognitive dissonance. Two large-scale pigment prints, both eerily beautiful mountainscapes evocative of some pre- or post-human world, also bear partial occlusion by foreign forms and materials. In “Romeoville” (2014), for example, the already-distressed image is violently interrupted by a large triangle of brightly colored geometric shapes whose coarse materiality bespeaks intense physical movement. Similarly dense and complex are two large-scale photographic portraits, possibly of the artist herself, into which thick tangles of black wool have been sewn, threatening to obliterate the sitter’s identity. As if in final blow to daylight logic, a talismanic object—a small wooden bear, an inverted human doll—is attached to each photograph’s surface, further eclipsing the subject’s face. Other, less visibly “worked” pieces achieve a similar degree of mystery and obfuscation by virtue of their proximity to wholly dissimilar neighbors.
If daylight logic arrived irritable, by mid-way through the show it is thoroughly enraged. Or, it has surrendered entirely, for clearly it is of no use here. Indeed, the kind of logic that presides over Fried’s work is that of the dream world. Symbolic and relational rather than denotative or referential, this work functions by generating a profusion of complex, difficult, and conflicting emotions not meant to be resolved or even understood but acknowledged—and perhaps claimed as one’s own. Throughout, widely disparate or mutually exclusive phenomena—nostalgic and futuristic imagery, labored somatic involvement and hands-off digital processes, abstraction and representation—present themselves synchronically, the way in a dream one can be both dead and alive. The net effect is that of a descent into the unconscious—not the artist’s, but one’s own—and here we are permitted the ultimate of impermissibles: a conscious, willful embrace of all our conflicting and irrational impulses and desires.
The show’s psychological intensity reaches its climax in the video piece, a relatively small work syntactically placed near a landscape featuring two ominous black moons. Titled “You Can Have Me Back” (2014), the video loops grainy, slow-motion footage depicting quasi-mammalian robotic creatures whose newborn-like legs struggle to ambulate. Endearing enough to elicit the kind of empathy we have toward our own young yet alien enough to keep our affections irresolute, the creatures exude moral ambiguity: Are they like us, or are they other? At one point, two human figures emerge and begin kicking one of the cowering creatures, seemingly acting on the darker possibility. Occasionally, the black-and-white footage erupts into a riot of acrid color suggestive of some kind of nuclear event. Hauntingly beautiful, and accompanied by a sonic refrain that intones, “Darkness, you can have me back,” the piece is a powerful evocation of our collective ambivalence toward technology.
For minds bent on the clarity of discursive reason, the concept of darkness as fertile territory might seem anathema. But we would all do well to remember that discursive thought constitutes but a tiny sliver of the mind: what we often take to be the whole picture is in fact nothing more than the uppermost arc of a vast, unbroken circle that extends well beneath the illuminated zone. Especially in a culture that gives pride of place to the reasoning faculty (just about all our metaphors for mental desiderata involve light), Fried’s work potently suggests a more holistic view of mind, one in which all the psychic material we suppress, reject, and repudiate is seen as a fundamental part—and perhaps the very source—of our intelligence. If one of the primary roles of art is to re-orient the mind toward wholeness, art that explicitly draws us into the darkness might be a necessary corrective in our culture. Darkness being the source without which there is no light, we might call it a correction in the direction of wisdom.