Curated by Thomas Rom
“Don’t brood too much […] on the superiority of the unseen to the seen. […] Our business is not to contrast the two, but to reconcile them”
Such is the advice that the wise protagonist, Margaret Schlegel, of E.M. Forster’s 1910 novel Howards End gives her younger sister Helen—to merge the real and the imagined, the spiritual and physical realms. She encapsulates this idea in a mantra, “Only connect!” that she repeats throughout the book and which served as an inspirational springboard for this show. Margaret calls to unite the beast and the monk, the prose and the passion, while emphasizing the importance of putting forward the greatest energy into human connections.
Margaret’s mantra responds to a world that parallels our current moment: a sharply accelerating, uncertain, and increasingly hyper-rational society migrating in great waves from the countryside into the bustle of big cities. In her refrain to “Only connect!” she reminds those close to her that in times like these, one needs to embrace emotion, imagination, and the mystical all the more tightly, but do so in a way that doesn’t exclude or evade physical reality. It’s through connecting and weaving these seeming diametrically opposed elements together that true knowledge and fulfillment can be achieved.
Our current moment of political polarization, trade wars, environmental disasters, and disruptive technological progress has given a clear rise to a renewed interest in ancient wisdom, spiritualism, and shamanic practices. Ayahuasca has become, in the words of the New Yorker “the drug of choice for the age of kale” Burning Man now brims over capacity by attendees, and meditation has been widely embraced by the mainstream.
Artists like those exhibiting in this show have unsurprisingly led the way in connecting and playing with these tendencies of simultaneous rationality and spirituality. Like Margaret’s home Howards End, their works provide portals through which to tap into the collective consciousness, collapsing of past, present, and future into essential and universal knowledge.
It was in Liora Kaplan’s studio in which I was first inspired to curate this show. Her works merge a multitude of references, among them a juxtaposition of the rise of spiritual practice in Israel in the 1960s with ever-present times of war; her childhood growing up with an archeology enthusiast father and an art teacher mother; and her experiences living and working with indigenous tribes in Costa Rica, Ecuador, and Colombia during the 90s, experimenting with their craft making and shamanic practice. Kaplan’s work digests, references, and criticizes pop culture while engaging with aesthetics of shamanic indigenous tribes. In particular, the motif of the snake, an ancient symbol of healing that is repeated across Liora’s works in this show, is significant, suggesting that, if war is a constant, the spiritual process of healing must also be a constant.
The snake motif is also present in the patterning of a rare abstract work The Den (2012) by Trenton Doyle Hancock that became a centerpiece for the show. Trenton is more well known for his figurative and narrative-driven works like The Ossified Theosophied (2005), also included here, which irreverently combines biblical narratives with comic book-like stories of his own imagination. But The Den (2012) lacks any narrative, leaving the viewer to explore a void of the universal backdrop or source code of reality, as in Giorgio Agamben’s theory of oblivion— the necessity of absence and forgetting in order for the existence of presence and remembering of ancient wisdom. The same snake skin pattern can also be perceived as marker for sacred geometry. This pattern is utilized heavily in Trenton’s work as reference to his impressionable early childhood memories of the floor tiles within his religious home.
Solange Pessoa also merges past, present, and future into spiritual essence in her works with organic materials. Solange, an artist and a practicing shaman, is also a highly regarded art teacher in Brazil, raising and nurturing a young generation of artists with a spiritual sensibility by cross-referencing artistic and shamanic practice in her teachings. At first glance the work looks as if it may have just as likely bubbled up from a primordial ooze through a wrinkle in space-time. Frequently embedded in her works, however, are pigments and other techniques used by tribes from her region of Brazil, a simultaneous tie to and abstraction from a specific place, time, and meaning that is also hyper-present in Jordan Nassar’s work.
Nassar, who will open a solo exhibition at the Center for Contemporary Art Tel Aviv in coming September, uses Palestinian embroidery motifs that have been developed over centuries as a deeply encoded means of communication. Channeling contemporary issues both personal and political through this ancient means of communication. The repeating patterns within Nassar’s works, recall the tiling of a mosque, ornamentations you might find in a synagogue or cathedral, or sacred geometry—touching us again to the collective consciousness of collapsed history.
Sacred geometry, as a form of ancient intelligence, is in many ways the holy grail of these forms, representing the dawn of civilization, the absolute truth, the living god, a visual manifestation of healing and divine energy. It was visions of these essential forms during a deep meditation that inspired Reuven Israel’s works in this show. Israel’s practice has long delved into ceremonial artifacts and religious sites, ‘abstracting the abstract,’ if you will, into its most basic energetic form and manifesting that essence in sleek sculptures that recall a futurist’s totem.
This technologization of spiritual experience also drew me to Li Shurui’s works. Installed here in a dimly lit room, her paintings are only able to be glimpsed in brief moments of increased light emanating from the LEDs of her film As seen by (2019), first presented this year at Art Basel in Hong Kong as a commission for Dior—as if a strobe in the modern-day temple of the nightclub. The film itself plays with the ways ideas and forms can be repackaged across media and time, its text reading at one point, “Besides if people see a painting and think it’s LED, does that make LED or painting obsolete.” Like Trenton’s and Solange’s works in this exhibition, Shurui’s pieces play with the deeply intertwined nature of light and dark within spiritual presence and practice.
Anchoring the exhibition are two beaded sculptures by The Haas Brothers that also speak to the reinvention of past artistic forms. The works result from a deep collaboration between the brothers and bead workers from the Xhosa tribe in South Africa. They build off of the uncanny, surrealist language that the artists have developed, translating the results of their efforts to connect to higher realms for inspiration into beaded forms that become objects of spiritual reverence—making ordained the mundane. Nearby, one of the artist duo’s iconic monsters Squid Mark (2019) stands like a beast that has wrested itself from a Bosch painting and sprung into the physical realm. Equal parts a humorous and demonized presence, the creature reminds us of the duality of experience, of fear, and of the relationship between the divine and the real.
When given a moment to animate in the imagination, the Haas’ work calls to mind the words of contemporary philosopher Graham Harman about the relationship between objects of the mind and objects that exist in real life when he writes, “Sensual objects always have real qualities. Simply by dreaming up any random monster, we have not automatically generated a real object, but we have generated real qualities.”
All of the artists’ works in “Only Connect!” not only generate real qualities but also real, difficult questions inherent in opening doors to new realms of thinking and consciousness. And yet they rarely provide answers to the questions that they ask, instead keeping the door open for us to play, meditate, contemplate and experience. It is my hope that by looking at all of the works in this show, and losing ourselves in their voids to dream up new realities, we can connect to and manifest source energy and collective knowledge, reconcile the seen and the unseen, and find moments of transcendence.
Tue – Thu
Fri – Sat
By appointment only
11:00 – 18:00
11:00 – 14:00