Tabula Rasa (Curious Matter)

Artist Aimée Burg organized Tabula Rasa, the current show at Curious Matter in downtown Jersey City. On view until September 16, the exhibition features nine artists, many of whom hail from the MFA program at Yale University. Participating artists include Sam Anderson, Lorraine Dauw, Frank De Leon-Jones, Tamar Ettun, Shanti Grumbine, Nate Heiges, Steven Paneccasio, Monika Sziladi and Catherine Telford-Keogh.

Before I discuss the show, I want to talk about boxing, a subject that I hold close to my heart. The size of a boxing ring often determines the style of a prizefight, if not its outcome. The larger ring fosters free-flowing action that takes place all over the canvas, as the boxer pirouettes around his opponent one minute, only to throw a four-punch combination to the head the next moment. The smaller ring, by contrast, encourages nose-to-nose action, which favors short, deliberate punches to the kidney, liver and abdomen. It’s as intimate as it is brutal.

Curious Matter’s exhibition space is the parlor room of a red brick row home. The parlor, at 144 square feet, is a 12-foot square, which is similar in size to a small boxing ring. Burg deserves a special shout-out for organizing a thoughtful, group exhibition of contemporary artists in a confined domestic space.

Catherine Telfod-Keogh, “Samson and Delilah” (2011), HD video still. Courtesy of the artist.

The dimension of the parlor, along with its original Italianate décor, dictates the experience of the show. Like a small ring in boxing, the room encourages the viewer to experience the art on view up close and personal. The viewer, quite literally, stands toe-to-toe to the art. 

The coerced intimacy between viewer and art object, in this case, is beneficial. For example, I found myself watching Catherine Telford-Keogh’s gag-inducing video “Samson and Delilah” (2011). I usually shut my eyes at the first sight of a plasma screen TV in a gallery, but in this case, I could not take my eyeballs off the screen.

Sam Anderson, “The Apartment Book Pt. 2” (2012), 2 ‘ x 2.5′ x 3’, table, found objects, AV 6 minute loop. Detail shot. (image courtesy of Curious Matter)

The video reveals two people — a woman (clothed) and a man (shirtless) — sitting at a table. The man cracks a bunch of nuts from a bowl and eats them. As he stuffs his face, the woman shaves his hairy chest — dragging razor over nipple, under boob and sternum. As the drama comes to the end, the woman crumples the man’s accumulated hair, and then does something, well, truly surprising with it. I won’t give it away here, but I will tell you that I had to watch the video from start to finish three times to believe what I was seeing. Telford-Keogh is the bastard child of Marina Abramović and Johnny Knoxville.

Shanti Grumbine, “Bin Laden’s Death and the New Unknown in Afghanistan, May 8, 2011” (2012), erased and excised half sheet (The New York Times), 22 X 12 inches. Courtesy of the artist.

Adjacent to Telford-Keogh’s video is Sam Anderson’s installation “The Apartment Book Pt.2” (2012), which rests on the floor. It features an assortment of miniature objects (potato sack, flower pot, porcelain figurine, cookies) on a table. Accompanying the strange tableaux is a six-minute monologue. The enigmatic aphorisms suggest love, desire and frustration. “You silly little peanut. You perfectly marvelous rube. I love you. I need you. I’ll take the next flight”; “I have chronic anxiety, which leads me to believe that I might just be an absolute fraud”; “Long distance information. Wrong number. Maybe you were spelling it wrong.” The relationship between monologue and the objects is not entirely clear. That being said, I could not help thinking of Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan) finding the severed ear in a grassy field in the film Blue Velvet as I sat with this work.

Shanti Grumbine, by contrast, contributes two manipulated sheets of newspaper, which are framed and suspended from a delicate picture rail, just beneath ornate crown molding. With their attention to detail, ornate design and flat geometric space, the excised half sheets (The New York Times) recall the illuminated manuscripts on view in the Islamic galleries at the Met. If I have to use one word to describe the work: wonderment.

Before I conclude my review, I want to revisit boxing and discuss “ring generalship” in regard to the exhibition. In boxing, ring generalship is one of the four categories used to evaluate a boxer’s performance. Specifically, ring generalship refers to a boxer’s ability to dictate the style and the pace of the fight. With agile footwork, quick hand speed and forethought, the smaller boxer can often maneuver an opponent around the ring, often to devastating effect. As a viewer, I felt the individual artworks and their informed placement in the parlor, guided me through exhibition. To this effect, Aimée Burg practiced tremendous ring generalship. This mysterious and often shocking show is up for two more weeks. I encourage you to visit.

Tabula Rasa continues at Curious Matter (272 Fifth Street, Jersey City, New Jersey) till September 16. Viewing hours Sunday, from noon to 3pm, or by appointment. Raymond and Arthur, the cofounders of the gallery, welcome visits during the week.