There is a passage in Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life in which the narrator discusses the novel’s prodigious artist character’s quest against the grain in pursuing figurative painting during a time in which, “truly anything was better than figurative work” (page 30). The passage was, of course, written with an ironic lilt. In the world of the novel, JB ascends to greatness, to the rarified one line billing of a MoMA retrospective; outside of the novel, figurative painting has once again ascended to ubiquitous popularity.
In an influential article, Dean Kissick discusses the rise of boring, bad, and lifeless “zombie figuration”, noting that a new wave of derivative “paintings belong to and assume the logic of the feed: designed to be apprehended in under five seconds”. At the heart of much recent curation, writing, and indeed art making has been the pursuit of “representation” in all its nebulous formlessness. The equation is as such: codes of representation have prevented certain bodies (their experiences, histories…) from existing in fine art spaces, thus to represent them offers inclusivity to those previously excluded and also a critical engagement with codes of the representation themself.
Exhibitions and artists ask the question of what it means to represent, and how representation changes depending on contextualized perspectives. And through this, we have become fixated on the figure. If the figure is able to represent our vision and dreams, we may have infiltrated the art markets and institutions with a surrogate for that which has been excluded for so long. Inclusivity will be achieved. Yet, to represent that which has been excluded can only offer one side of the conversation of capital R Representation. The Guggenheim’s new show, Going Dark, on view through April 7th, seeks to interrogate representing absence rather than presence. Throughout the show, artists depict or suggest obscured and absent figures through a variety of mediums including photography, painting, sculpture, and video. The exhibition includes seminal works as well as less known and more contemporary pieces.
The show includes a broad range of considerations of absence. Doris Salcedo’s Disremembered is a sculpture composed of raw silk and thousands of needles. It is a light, ethereal garment that would cause unimaginable pain to wear. The pieces stand as funeral shrouds for American mothers who have lost children to gun violence. There are David Hammons’ Body Prints, which are works on paper that present an index of the artist’s body. He would cover himself with oil and other substances and press parts of his body onto the paper, leaving behind a physical trace of his existence.
The exhibition has a lot of photography as well, including excerpts from the series Night Coming Tenderly, Black by Dawoud Bey. In this body of work, Bey visits sites along the Underground Railroad, a series of secret routes and safe houses that protected enslaved African Americans on their path to freedom. Not only are the frames empty of any bodies, the images are also extremely dark forcing a viewer to closely behold haunting images of houses, bodies of water, and forests. Through this, Bey is able to discuss the need for those seeking freedom to make themselves invisible.
All of the work included meditates on the absence of a figure. For some, there is an emptiness where there should ostensibly be a figure. In others, the figure is suggested, just hidden partially or distorted. The reasons for this obfuscation and erasure are varied across place and time, but are all grounded in histories of oppression and violence. The exhibition requires close looking and slow contemplation. The show uses the Guggenheim's spiral rotunda gallery format brilliantly, and the exhibition’s ideas develop in an ascending wave. There are beats and pauses, and moments where the works compile relentlessly. Expertly curated, the show offers the opportunity for both rich intellectual contemplation and deep sensual engagement.
Dawoud Bey, Untitled #25 (Lake Erie and Sky), 2017. Gelatin silver print, 44 × 55 in. (111.8 × 139.7 cm). Rennie Collection, Vancouver. © Dawoud Bey. Photo: Courtesy Sean Kelly.
Charles White, Nobody Knows My Name #1, 1965 (detail). Wolff crayon and charcoal on illustration board, 30 × 40 inches (76.2 × 101.6 cm), composition: 29 1/2 × 39 1/2 inches (74.9 × 100.3 cm). Courtesy Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, New York and ACA Galleries, New York. © The Charles White Archives. Photo: Courtesy Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, New York.
Sondra Perry, Graft and Ash for a Three Monitor Workstation, 2016. Digital color video, with sound, 9 min., 5 sec.; and bicycle workstation, 68 × 42 × 16 in. (172.7 × 106.7 × 40.6 cm). Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, Gift of Jim Cahn and Jeremy Collatz, 2019. © Sondra Perry. Photo: Courtesy the artist and Bridget Donahue, New York.