On ViewPierogi Gallery
April 7 – May 5, 2019
“Owls Stare at Painting's Busted Eyeballs” reads the title of Sharon Horvath’s show at Pierogi. The title seems to refer to the owls of the artworld (like Horvath herself) who stare all wide-eyed at so many captivating paintings from throughout the ages, mesmerized by their aesthetic, transformative mystique. But the title also personifies her inanimate paintings, endowing them, just like us, with the ability to see—were it not for the fact that their eyes are “busted.” Which leads this critic to ask: how did they get this way?
Horvath does not provide answers to this ghoulish line of comedic horror. With hyper-hallucinatory night trips to other galaxies, she leaves us wondering, guided by dreamy intuition and menacing charm. I am drawn in by the painting’s silky and matte surfaces, puddles and pools of light, echoing bubbles of curiosity, stardust domes, and biomorphic abstractions filled with innuendo and earthy figuration. Horvath has certainly brought Pierogi to life through painting and collage, with the frenetic whimsy of an insomniac in a moon-lit room.
There is also a haunted quality, as if Horvath is playing a slightly morbid game, like the childhood classic hide-and-go-seek—the game that can lead a child who fears dark claustrophobic spaces to crouch down for hours behind some hanging winter coats in the very back corner of a pitch black muffled bedroom closet. Indeed, the work in the show almost seemed to dart away from my consciousness as I stood in the exhibition with my eyes covered, counting to one-hundred-Mississippi.
Aside from the works on paper and canvas, we are confronted by an eclectic collection of furnishings and a motley assemblage of free-floating clutter. There are 45 rpm singles, glued to the corners of some of the canvases, along with various ad-hoc studio supplies, like beat-up paint-encrusted dishes once used as makeshift palettes. And there are tabletop vitrines reminiscent of the dadaist Hannah Höch, who practically invented the genre of photo-collage in Berlin circa 1920s (see Cut with the Dada Kitchen Knife through the Last Weimar Beer-Belly Cultural Epoch in Germany, 1919). According to Horvath, the contents of these tabletop collages are mostly things gathered from the attic of the house she grew up in outside of Cleveland Ohio—“newspaper clippings that I kept strewn around the studio from the years when my father was an illustrator, files filled with pictures of animals from Life magazine and the space race.”
But, Horvath’s rummage-assisted art show never succumbs to the melancholia or creepiness of the obsessive-compulsive hoarder. On the contrary, there is a feisty spirit charging through the entire room and everything in it like electricity through a model train set. Her busy choreography can be mapped as if we are perched above, spying on her lyrical nocturnal inner world.
And the show’s outer world happens to be immaculately timed with recent front page news, (April 10, 2019) announcing the extraordinary photograph of an actual black hole. “Astronomers announced on Wednesday that at last they had captured an image of the unseeable: a black hole, a cosmic abyss so deep and dense that not even light can escape it,” writes Dennis Overbye in The New York Times.
We now have a photographic image proving, as science, what up till now could only be art. Spectacular as it may be to conjure this new sight of the “unseeable,” had this newspaper article been clipped and slipped right into one of Horvath’s vitrines it would have fit without need of remark. In other words, it would have been another abstraction.
I’m reminded of the first time I saw a Jackson Pollock as a child following my mother through the National Gallery in Washington DC, hoping not to lose track of her. Standing before a massive drip and slash, silvery and black painting, I had the overwhelming impression that I was looking down on a map of the world from outer space. The surface didn’t read to me as paint; literal as the paint was that had been poured directly from cans, spattered and flung with sticks. Instead, I saw some sort of magnified satellite image. As far as I was concerned, I could have been standing in a NASA exhibition across the mall in the Air and Space Museum.
Working with microscopic and macroscopic visions, Horvath suggests that she can trust her paintbrush and other tools of intuition to reveal what’s out there beyond perception, beyond understanding, similar to what Ralph Waldo Emerson spoke of as the “transparent eyeball,” with its ability to take it all in, and allow the individual to become one with nature. Emerson wrote, “Standing on the bare ground—my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite spaces—all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or parcel of God.”
In this sense, Horvath uses the “Transparent Busted Eyeball” of the painting process to clear her doors of perception (Blake) and tell us a story. Of course, like Emerson and Blake, Horvath is neither an astronomer nor palm reader, but is thoroughly entertained by news of the latest physical and/or metaphysical frontier. As she says, “who doesn’t like a black hole reduced to the size of your hand?”
Going back to the Enlightenment, the scientific method has been fighting to disassociate itself from the speculative, passionate nature of art. Likewise romantic art has resisted dry empiricism and taxonomy. But there are occasionally cases in science where mad irrationality wins. Where the feverish scientist (or pseudoscientist) eclipses the artist, with evidence so wildly imaginative as to retain the sense of impossibility and decadence we typically reserve for poetry.
Consider how Goethe paints a picture of the night sky by anthropomorphizing the light, caught in the gaze of the ocular all-seeing moon. In a 1778 poem "To the Moon" (set to lieder by Schubert in 1815), he wrote:
Once more you fill bush and valley
With your misty light,
At last also you bring
Rest to me
With calm you spread your brilliant gaze
Over the fields around me
Like my loved one watching my fate
With his gentle eyes
Perhaps the romantic moon is not only there to witness tragedy and comfort the broken-hearted, but also to catch us in the act of misbehaving. As is the case with the "high lonesome” singing voice of the bluegrass mandolinist Bill Monroe in his 1946 southern minstrel "Blue Moon of Kentucky" (which was covered by Elvis Presley). The song’s lyrics suggests that the moon plays an active role in illuminating a cheating lover, functioning as a form of surveillance: "Blue Moon of Kentucky, keep on shining. Shine on the one that's gone and proved untrue. Blue Moon of Kentucky, keep on shining. Shine on the one that's gone and left me blue.”
Along with the painting’s busted eyeball, the feeling of lyrical pastoral blue moon (or loneliness) is certainly one of the emotional takeaways of Horvath’s show. And I wasn't surprised, when she told me of recent deaths and breakups as well as the discovery and acquisition of a dream house, not in Kentucky, but in the Catskills, “with a pond, a stream, a barn, a meadow, and magic trees that mark a passage into what feels like the next stage of my life.”
One of the biggest and most ambitious painting in the show, “Out There Or In Here” (2019), predominantly green, it radiates with its own Goethe-esque misty moon light. It feels like a bulb has landed on a lily pad in a pond as underwater visitors, glowing with phosphorescence, rise to see it up close. It's a primordial beginning, swollen with color, carried by a careful brush, running canals of pigment absorbed through pores of memory. This painting is more than a little hypnotic—so gaze at your own risk as you feel yourself turning into an owl.