When Josephine Halvorson finds her subject, she stops just long enough to paint it. It could be numbers on the siding of a railroad car, a sign tacked to a tree trunk, the dark patch where a sign once was, or a window sill. Her work can be divided into two periods. Between 2007 and 2018, she painted in oil on canvas, often using a dark, tonal palette, and she was seemingly never more than an arm’s length away from her subject. While she has stayed close to her subjects, her palette and brushwork changed after she began painting in acrylic gouache on absorbent grounds. Addressing the change on her website, Halvorson posted this statement:
Inspired by fresco painting’s ability to hold color and mark, I’ve wanted to make a sensitive surface that preserves my observations in real time. Painting in longhand, I work in a verité style, documenting the subtle shifts in shadow and thought. I want to make a painting that remembers better than I can.
Halvorson’s desire to have her paintings be synonymous with “real time” means that she cannot go back into a work the way she could with oil paint. Every mark she makes is indelible.
In a Boston Globe article (July 28, 2021), Cate McQuaid quotes Halvorson about her use of acrylic gouache: “I’m going back to the way I used to paint. Faster. What I would now call reportage.” The news she brings us is not about topical events, but about the individual and collective psyche in the face of death and technological advancement.
As someone who has followed and written about Halvorson’s work for more than a decade, I think her current exhibition, Josephine Halvorson: Unforgotten, at Sikkema Jenkins & Co. (March 17–April 18, 2023) is her strongest yet. She has attained a sharper clarity in her work as well as broadened her inventory to include a wide array of objects, from cheap ballpoint pens to plastic flowers. Halvorson is an observational painter, whose depictions of things seen but not looked at are about the cycle of consumption and waste that informs every part of our lives. She has an uncanny ability to zero in on commonplace items — a roadside memorial composed of plastic flowers, a graffitied sign, or her deceased father’s desk — as a way of speculating on the bond of art and life, vulnerability and defiance, and the effect of time and history on the stuff we obtain, use, and discard.
“Peony” (2022), the exhibition’s largest work, consists of 25 panels measuring 13 by 16 inches, abutted together in five equal rows. The central panel is an overhead view of a white peony at the peak of its bloom. In six of the remaining panels, Halvorson has depicted the peony at different moments and angles. A stem or leaf in one panel might shift slightly as it continues in an adjacent one. Radiating out from the central panel, “Peony” does not present the cycle of its life. The bright, saturated greens she uses are a long way from the moody olive and green she used when she was painting in oil. While the subject of “Peony” is the effect of time passing, Halvorson does not focus solely on the flower and depict its inevitable decline. She preserves different moments and views. The multi-panel format is something new for her.
In the square painting “Last Words” (2022), Halvorson utilizes the shallow setting favored by trompe l’oeil artists such as John F. Peto and John Haberle to memorialize her father’s homemade plywood work desk and wall. Because of COVID-19, she was unable to see her father when he died. A large clock, just right of the center, presides over the composition. Beneath it is an unused calendar, open to July 2018. Nearby, a piece of paper on a bulletin board reads: I’M SO HAPPY FOR YOU. Who said this? What was the context? The people who would know are seemingly absent, yet the desk looks like it was used for years.
Halvorson attends to each business card, take-out menu, pen, paperclip, keychain, and key in “Last Words.” It is painted in longhand, meaning she paints each detail rather than provides a shorthand version. Odd details are included, such as a Kiwi classic shoe care kit on which we read: Norman Rockwell Commemorative Edition.
The painting is a visual archive of a small part of a person’s life, as well as a record of things before they are discarded or reused. Is one purpose of a painting to be a record of a life? Attentive to shadows and the reflection on the clock’s glass covering, Halvorson invites the viewer to contemplate all the ways we mark and live in time, and how much of what we record and keep we will eventually dispose of. Does she mean “Last Words” to be her father’s testament?
Along with exploring her father’s desk, Halvorson spent time in New Mexico, where in 2019 she was the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum’s first artist-in-residence. “Points of Interest” (2022) is a heavily graffitied sign with various names peeking through. One of them reads “Santa Clara Pueblo,” where the ceramic artist Rose B. Simpson is an enrolled member and resident. Painting what she sees, Halvorson shows us the ongoing perpetuation of colonialism and the desire to obliterate the other. At the same time, the different tags attain a scriptorial beauty.
In “Buried Barrel,” “Army Heater,” and “Disconnect Box” (all 2022), Halvorson depicts things that are outdated and abandoned. They are relics from earlier technology. We live in a world where obsolescence is part of the process. That process, which is intrinsic to capitalism’s notion of progress, is one reason why she picks these forlorn, forgotten, mute things; she wants to us reflect upon how they affected those who built them. What is the human cost in a society predicated on efficiency and desuetude?
In “Roadside Memorial” (2021), we are looking down at stems of plastic flowers stapled to the base of stripped tree trunks. (Technically speaking, Halvorson’s ability to convey that the flowers are plastic should clue us into her growing mastery of the medium.) A holy candle with the Virgin of Guadalupe printed on the glass holder rises from behind three rocks, which have been arranged to hold a medallion. The medallion reads: “Friends are the flowers in the garden of life.”
“Important Notice” (2023) reveals a side of Halvorson I have never seen before: a dry, macabre humor. Pinned to a crooked bulletin board that has seen better days is a torn, yellowing announcement. Under “Important Notice,” we read:
The management regrets that it has come to their attention that employees dying on the job are failing to fall down. This practice must stop as it becomes impossible to distinguish between death and natural movement itself. Any employee found dead in an upright position will be dropped from the payroll
Everything about the painting is straightforward, while everything in it is off kilter, bizarre, and inexplicable. Who posted this? The bulletin board, which hangs at an angle, seems to have been abandoned in an unused office space. How does the meaning change now that it is no longer being used, having died in an upright position? Circumstances change and the meaning of things shift. Halvorson is attuned to this.
Josephine Halvorson: Unforgotten continues at Sikkema Jenkins & Co. (530 West 22nd Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through April 18. The exhibition was organized by the gallery.