Sunday, September 14, 2008

"Tikkun" means "to mend" : Suzanne Slavic at the PCA

Star lilies often decorate viewings of bodies before funerals, as their heavy sweet scent covers that of the body. I didn't notice the bouquet of star lilies gracing Suzanne Slavic (PCA's Artist of the Year) opening Friday night until I was making my second tour of the work.

It is a mixed symbol, a gorgeous flower that hides the smell of death. How appropriate to artwork in which Slavic applies a screen of beauty to photographs of human-wrought destruction.

I may be able to describe the physicality of the work with that single sentence, but the complexity and depth of experience provided by viewing it shows the artist's genius in her exploration of that single decision's possibility.

She has appropriated the visual language of disaster photography (the illusion of a represented reality) and applied another language, that of Islamic painting techniques to both the physical and illusive surface of the image.

Each still image contains competing narratives, the photographed 'reality' of destruction underneath the painted image. At times the photograph was printed in a way that points to it having been manipulated in some way, a manipulation that further indicates the illusion-atop-illusion parameters set up by Slavic.

Her painting technique echoes Islamic miniaturist tradition, and speaks to a vocabulary of inner reality referenced in Sufi poetry. I walked room to room recognizing scenes and passages from a variety of Arabic story-sources and comparing them to the contents in the photography. I considered the tension between 'real' and 'imagined' - photo referencing our belief in 'reality', and painting speaking to our 'imagined' re-creation of reality ...

And in the images wherein she overlays imagined repairs to a 'reality' destroyed by war or natural disaster? While in this room, the phrase "tikkun" means "to mend" insistantly ran through my mind. It made sense to me, looking at images of the middle east reconstructed with a Western hand in an Islamic gesture, that I would think of a phrase that comes from Kabbalah (another Middle-Eastern practice, although Jewish) - that the highest calling of a spiritual practitioner is to work to repair reality and the connections we have to, in, and with reality.

Slavic's work may not pull at those strings of those viewers who are not interested in those ideas, but instead it will challenge those who have a hard time looking at the consequences of human misbehavior. Its one of our oldest problems: Humans destroy things, nature destroys things, how do we look at the brokenness we make? How do we respond? Do we numb ourselves in order to tend to life's mundane necesseties? How can we maintain awareness of our ruined world?

My favorite response from a viewer was, "I feel guilty liking this work, because it gives me that silly childlike hope that we can deal with things." Perhaps it invokes the child's wish to bandage the world's wounds so the sounds of those wounds festering do not intrude on the child's experience of the world.

Suzanne Slavic has provided us with complex art for a complex time, the best food for thought. Check out the second floor of the PCA until the show comes down.

1 comment:

Tristan said...

that sounds like a wonderful exhibition. Great review and really good blog by the by.....