The Hirshhorn’s exhibition “Feel the Sun In Your Mouth” highlights the museum’s recent acquisitions. (The title is taken from a line in a video work by Laure Prouvost.) With works advertised as encapsulating “the current moment,” the show, featuring a range of mediums, reflects several broader trends in the art world: the renewed interest in figurative painting; the ubiquity of installation; the gradual adoption of digital processes; and the elevation of craft to the level of “fine” art.
Organized loosely around the theme of reinvigorating the senses, “Feel the Sun in Your Mouth” foregrounds our alienation from physical sensation in an increasingly digitized world. That theme is most evident in such works as Prouvost’s video “Swallow,” and the tactile painting of Nicole Eisenman. But even with pieces that don’t directly acknowledge the senses, a connection to — or disconnection from — the physical can be seen. In John Giorno’s “Dial-A-Poem,” for instance, the handset of a rotary phone sits heavy in a hand more accustomed to an iPhone. And Avery Singer’s untitled painting was made without human touch.
These works don’t just invite us to return our focus to our senses but ask: If we are less attuned to sensation, where is our attention redirected?
Eisenman’s 2018 canvas “Luck Lines,” which depicts a large hand, is executed with the authority of an astrology column written in red, boldface type. In the tug of war between fate and free will, here the victor is the former.
From the swirling, Impressionistic creases of the palm to what appears to be the distant glow of a far-off planet, Eisenman’s more sculptural sensibilities — on display in recent years, in addition to her paintings — are evident. The hand is smooth, like polished wood. The night sky evokes tweed fabric. And the yellow celestial orb looks like it is bound up in the stitching of the stars.
Stretching from one end of the nearly four-foot-wide canvas to the other, the foreground is all hand. Many artworks function like questions. This one reads like a declarative sentence.
Contained within the hand is a landscape. The lines on the palm twist and turn, rise and fall like rugged terrain. In the center, the “luck line” of the title contains the energy of a roller coaster’s vertical loop and the pulsing, helpless anxiety of an approaching storm on Doppler radar. The up-close and the faraway feel intertwined.
Eisenman is known for large canvasses of contemporary scenes created with the painstaking detail of a history painting and the stylistic range of an art school virtuoso. By comparison, “Luck Lines” is simple, even rudimentary. But distilled in the details of the hand are stylistic differences that hint at the diversity of her oeuvre. From the cramped up pinkie to the cubist index finger to the painterly pointer finger, each digit conjures a different mood.
When you think of abstract painting you probably think of Pollock’s drip paintings or Mondrian’s primary-color grids. But Avery Singer’s untitled 2016 canvas broaches another brand of abstraction more commonly found in biology textbooks: a tree diagram. Yes, the kind you might put in a PowerPoint presentation — and the aesthetics are not dissimilar. Against a stark white background, three fine, black lines extend into clusters of blurry, inscrutable nodes.
The work evokes a mental state: when memory fails and the shape of an idea is clear, but the specifics are impossible to pin down. Offering a sense of how, but not what, Singer gives us a scaffolding for information, but withholds the content.
In the past year, Singer has shown at the Venice Biennale, and last week she became the youngest artist to be represented by the international gallery Hauser & Wirth. Acclaimed for pushing the boundaries of painting with topical, digitally-rendered images, Singer uses 3D-modeling software to create scenes reminiscent of uncanny video game graphics.
But here, the image is more abstract — and not just from reality. Singer abstracts herself, the artist, from the work too. Using a printer to airbrush the digital image onto the canvas, she removes herself almost entirely from the process. Like Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, who ordered “telephone paintings” over the phone from a sign factory, Singer has outsourced the means of production.
When you pick up the rotary phone that constitutes John Giorno’s “Dial-A-Poem,” the voice of Anne Waldman might be in your ear: “I’m a bird woman. I’m a book woman,” she asserts, building up a cadence. “I’m a tidal-pool woman. I’m a fast-speaking woman,” she continues, sounding as if she is present on the other end of the line.
Waldman is one of several poets recorded by Giorno between 1968 and 2012. (The number is still in service: 641-793-8122). Inspired by Pop Art’s appeal to the masses, Giorno used the telephone to extend poetry to an audience beyond New York cafes and literary magazines. The recordings feature Patti Smith, Allen Ginsberg, John Cage, Peter Schjeldahl and others.
Many of these writers are now household names, but they were once at the periphery of the establishment, too radical for the academic poetry world. First recorded amid the cultural fervor of the ’60s, the audio has an energy that makes every accentuated syllable land like a meteorite from another time. The verse fluctuates between graphic gay content, advocacy for civil rights, anti-Vietnam monologues and meditative soliloquies on nothingness. It has the emotional range of Twitter, slowed down, given depth and delivered directly to your ears.
The use of mirrors, in art, often seems gimmicky: symptomatic of an institution acquiescing to the demands of selfie culture. But Alicja Kwade’s 2018 installation is different.
Composed of scraggly, gray-toned tree trunks, metal frames and double mirrors, “WeltenLinie” is minimal, almost post-apocalyptic. It demands that you negotiate its periphery to understand the world it describes. And it’s not one you’ll recognize.
The frames function as trap doors for the eyes. Like a house of mirrors, some contain reflective glass, others are empty. Just as you expect to see yourself reflected in the frame, your body has vanished and you are looking through to the other side, toward an unfamiliar shape. The structure restlessly insists you learn — and unlearn — the space around you and your relation to it.
The artist grew up on both sides of the Berlin Wall, fleeing from East to West at age 8. Her experience of shifting identities and perspectives, while not the only inspiration for her work, certainly informs this piece, whose title translates to “world lines.” But more significant here is her interest in physics and philosophy. The installation evinces an acute awareness of the optics of reflection. Perhaps this is why the mirrors don’t feel gratuitous: they are not props concerned with viral self-absorption but strategic objects: negating, shifting, subverting. Here, the mirror is most apparent when it is absent.
Swallow me, From Italy to Flander, a tapestry
Prouvost’s 2015 collage, “Swallow me, From Italy to Flander, a tapestry,” looks like the contents of a fever dream embroidered onto your great aunt’s faded dining room tablecloth. Pink and green pastels create a placid backdrop on an otherwise chaotic scene: a wide-eyed cat, a woman eating an ice cream cone, almost sensually; hands massaging a back; feet perched on wet rock; a swirling optical illusion. Neoclassical symbols and technological allusions punctuate green foliage. Nearby, a Grecian bust is caught, mid-scream; a fractal seems to turn; the cat’s eyes appear to widen.
On the adjacent wall, a screen plays “Swallow,” a 2013 video translation of Prouvost’s sensual tapestry. In an idyllic natural setting borrowed from another millennium, nude bathers totter across stones, interrupted by flashes of fish wriggling, hands touching, a mouth opening and closing, all synced to the sound of rhythmic breathing.
In the tapestry, there is both a painting and a photograph of a video monitor. Next to the tapestry, there’s a literal screen. Provoust, who represented France at this year’s Venice Biennale, is interested in the power of representation, the way film can manipulate feelings, and the nebulous boundary between the real and fictional. In interviews, Prouvost has been known to play fast and loose with facts — misstating her age, making up family members. In her work, she also pushes the envelope of truth.
Feel the Sun In Your Mouth: Recent Acquisitions
Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Independence Avenue and Seventh Street SW. hirshhorn.si.edu.
Dates: Through Feb. 2, 2020