Chelsea, New York City
Last Thursday, at sunset, I attended the opening of "Retrospective of S-" at Fredericks & Freiser in Chelsea. The show was not your run-of-the-mill retrospective, which usually entails the exploration of an established artist’s career, because, like Henry Codax, Donelle Woolford, Rrose Selavy, and John Dogg, S- does not exist. Rather, she is the invention of the writer Jonathan Safran Foer and the painter and Associate Dean at the Yale School of Art Samuel Messer. "Retrospective of S-" is a summer group show, showcasing the work of ten artists selected by Messer. Safran Foer wrote the text accompanying each piece that corresponded to different parts of S-‘s life instead of the usual text that accompanies a work. Forming a rough biography as a whole, Safran Foer’s text begins in 1964 when S- was 14 and ends in 2010 when she was 60. So, “Retrospective of S-“ is a splashy, conceptually complex show –Jonathan Safran Foer! Samuel Messer! Chelsea! Yale! Art! The Literary World! Enigma! And, last but not least, S-!
The hype is well deserved. Though the twist means that the show never looks or feels like a real retrospective, the concept plays with conventional notions of chronology, development, and identity. The artists slipping into the identity of S-, are, chronologically, Francesca Lo Russo, Josephine Messer, Judith Linhares, Njideka Akunyili, Caitlin Cherry, Chie Fueki, Rochelle Feinstein, Natalie Frank, Jackie Gendel, and Jennifer Packe. The show began with works from S-'s precocious youth, then moved on to work from her 20s when she moved to New York, stopping at the erotic but non-arousing sex paintings that gained her critical notoriety in the 80s, ending with her most recent paintings in 2010. Messer told Gallerist that none of the artists had seen what the others were creating, and that some of the pieces were made specifically for the show while others correspond to decade of S-'s life that is being described.
Beyond the different artists interpretations of S-, what was most interesting about the show was the way its twist changed the relationship between what is the typical gallery text and the viewer. Foer’s sensuous, poetic narration (“Fingers seem always to be clenched; eyes seem always to be closed; the horizons are never distant, but unexpectedly close, like a glass door accidentally walked into”) demanded to be considered along with the images. Instead a product of pure information, indicating the title, dimensions, and perhaps the price of each piece, the show’s text became elevated to a product of choices, equal its visual counterpart. I found myself deliberating over Safran Foer’s every word in relation to the image it accompanied, the sense of humor and playfulness in some text and the absence of that in others, the way each label helped tell a story. The pairing of these texts by one artist with representational works by different artists demonstrated the endless imaginative variation of the human mind.
"Retrospective of S-" will be showing at Fredericks & Freiser in Chelsea (536 West 24th Street) through July 27th.