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If only all artists who smothered themselves in glitter could mix the mystic and comic as well as Karen Azoulay. Often, when artists attempt to approach spiritual themes the end result is stilted. In Azoulay’s mesmerizing video art, the artist and her collaborators don gem-encrusted masks and eat flowers. There is something raw, accessible, and hypnotic about these works, making her exhibition Semi-Precious at Essex Flowers well worth the trip downtown.
In the GIF excerpt from “Eating the Flowers” (2019) above, a face covered in purple glitter, with onyx black teeth, devours white, purple, and yellow pansies. This work begs the question, what does “pansy” mean? In 2015, the artist set out to answer that question by digging through several 19th-century flower dictionaries and compiling definitions of flower names in a booklet entitled Flowers and their Meanings (2015). The booklet accompanied an exhibition Azoulay curated, The Perennial, at the Grecian Shelter in Prospect Park, which was presented in partnership with More-Art.
In the booklet, one learns that the Heart’s Ease varietal conveys the idea, think of me. Purple pansies signify that you occupy my thoughts. Yellow and purple mixed pansies say forget me not. Discovering these definitions changes the meaning of the work. Suddenly, the figure is eating the pansy with love on the mind, and the lips languish with yearning.
Pink carnations once meant I will never forget you. So when the green mask gobbles up some of the carnation kebab, the video is suddenly about wrestling with an unforgettable love. The way the lips pull back with reticence and then push ahead to carefully remove the bud cleverly mixes the banal and the sublime, just as romance brings on a similar mix of highs and lows one can’t forget.
In this next vignette from “Eating the Flowers” (2019), Azoulay, in a white mask, takes a bite out of a Calla lily. The catch is that flower is immensely poisonous. Look closely: It immediately causes an intense burning sensation in her mouth. The pain is briefly visible through the mask in her cheeks and lips. How ironic that a flower once associated with holiness is actually life-threatening when consumed. Isn’t it equally toxic that religious dogma often justifies hate, bigotry, misogyny, homophobia, and other prejudices?
The project’s inspiration comes from the discovery of the skeleton of a 11th-century woman in Germany, who was probably a nun and an artist; her remains were found in a cemetery for nuns. The archaeobotanist, Dr. Anita Radini, asked to examine the plant remnants in the skull’s mouth. Vital information about the history and evolution of flora can be gleaned from the detritus preserved in the teeth of the dead. What Radini found surprised her and many others: fragments of the gemstone lapis lazuli, which led her and other experts to conjecture that this woman was a manuscript illuminator — presumably, she either licked a brush covered in lapis lazuli to create a fine point for illuminating a manuscript or inhaled some of it while she was preparing pigment powder.
In the middle ages, gems like lapis lazuli were believed to posses magical powers. Various manuscripts known as lapidaries circulated in Europe, and listed the healing properties that could be accessed by touching the stone. These medieval sources still inspire today’s crystal shops. Contemporaneous with the 11th-century nun, the German nun and mystic Hildegard of Bingen (1098 – 1179) wrote extensively on the magical powers of stones and herbs. The anonymous nun may well have kept bits of lapis luzuli in her mouth for its magic.
In “Lapis Lazuli with Orange Teeth” (2019), the artist creatively imagines this German nun and manuscript illuminator. Fragments of lapis lazuli coat her lips, encroaching on her teeth. Azoulay’s blue lips seem here to writhe, as if she is experiencing the power of these fragments.
In this GIF excerpt from “Nocturne” (2018), a figure enters into a state of ecstasy amid flowers and intergalactic scenery. The point is that using stones, herbs, and flowers to access the mystic has a long and documented history among nonsecular and secular people in medieval Europe.
Azoulay’s visual puns play with the power of flowers and stones. Drawing inspiration from Victorian sources as well as medieval discoveries, she invites us to experience their symbolic potency with captivating visuals. The masks can also be viewed in person at the exhibition. What sounds like faint bells plays in the background, heightening the sense of awe and mystery. It is actually the sound of the bronze mask from “Nocturne” (2018) being struck. Bruce Nauman once wrote in neon that “the true artist helps the world by revealing mystic truths.” He forgot to write that it’s hard as hell. Few video artists today can pull off the aesthetic of the mystic as well as Karen Azoulay.
Karen Azoulay: Semi-Precious continues at Essex Flowers (19 Monroe Street, Manhattan) through July 28.