Showing at Barney Savage Gallery through September 30, Bonjour Tristesse, curated by Julian Jamirez-Howard, is a quiet exhibition that seems to painstakingly push back against the urban hustle and bustle that surrounds it. One might even say the exhibition is too quiet, like a calm before a storm.
Eight female artists are featured, all of whom have contributed works on paper. How each artist uses this medium depends on the nature of her ongoing artistic practice. Works by Nathalie Jolivert, for example, are comparatively diminutive in relation to her more large-scale pieces. Yet they still allude to the vernacular of her Haitian culture, delving into human relationships, urbanism, and environmental issues. Similarly, Mithu Sen’s works use symbolism to delve into unnerving cultural themes. Borrowing from the lexicon of psychoanalysis, her alluringly deceptive depictions of a chair or rotary phone are, on closer inspection, riddled with pockmarks and stitches — lingering traumas that have become embedded in the substance of the objects she recreates.
Objects reflect attitudes; their use in art is inevitably a reference to the persons who might use them. In this light, it’s especially worthy of remark that the nude is a recurring theme in the exhibition. The denuded body is both subject and object: an entity represented and something experienced directly. Stemming from the tension created by this opposition, a kind of narrative is at play in these works. This story is self-reflexive; placed side by side, every artist seems to be contributing to a shared narrative that portrays anxieties about feminine identity along with the use and abuse of multiculturalism and intersectionality.
One of Jillian Denby‘s contributions to the show captures this attitude perfectly. Her oil painting “Two Women with Balloon” (1982) shows two similar-looking women engaged in parallel activities. The muted colors of the work lend the image an almost Victorian seriousness; yet this is offset by the simple fact that the two figures in the painting are nude. What’s really troubling about the work is that the two women don’t seem to know they’re separated. Only the viewer can guess the extent to which the two women are alienated from one another, despite being next to each other and looking almost like twins. There’s also an unsettling mood surrounding the activities in which the two women are engaged. One is blowing up a balloon, while the other seems to be examining a painting or floor mat out of sheer boredom (we know that it’s out of boredom because the image she’s looking at is upside down from her perspective). Neither of these activities can last very long, and then what? The painting provides no answer.
An additional theme addressed by Bonjour Tristesse is migration and displacement. This subject is spoken to indirectly by a few artists in the show, but Suyeon Na’s mixed-media work “Flow” (2015) tackles the issue head on. Meticulously composed from rice paper fragments, painted on with watercolor and gouache, the painting becomes a work of collage. These tessellated fragments speak to a purpose, however. They serve to recreate, in a contemporary guise, folkloric imagining from Na’s childhood. Not losing hold of her Korean identity, the woman in the painting is immersed not only in water, but blood emerging from a snake. The poetry of the image communicates directly, although it unpacks into multiple meanings. In relation to the other works on exhibit, the viewer might focus on the figure’s face, which conveys an attitude of languidness that contrasts glaringly with the many layers of collage composing the work. It could be argued that the painting makes a case for Korean-American identity as something only seemingly assimilated into the zeitgeist of American life; meanwhile, when one examines the matter more closely, the immigrant has to make untold sacrifices to appear not wholly estranged from their adopted society.
More can be said about this show, and hopefully more will be said about it. Bonjour Tristesse has a gentleness about it that speaks to the pre-linguistic level of our understanding. Communicating with symbols as much as concepts, the works in the show convey a unique vision regarding the outsider’s place in American society.