Collage and boxed assemblages by Hannelore Baron; plus invented architecture by Stephen Talasnik and Maine watercolors by Susan Shatter
Admitting biography into discussion of an artist’s work risks elements of pathos that the art itself does not support. Much of the response to Hannelore Baron’s work is colored by her identity as a Holocaust survivor. The phrase tends to raise her art to a sacramental level where it resists being seen on its own terms. Yet there is an elusive poetry to her art more evocative than biographical particulars.
Hannelore Baron (1926-1987), was born in Dilligen, Germany, to Jewish parents who owned a small textile shop. On Kristallknacht, she saw the shop destroyed, her home ransacked and her father brutally beaten. Haunted by the sight of his bloody handprint on a wall, she used art as exorcism, fabricating an alternative primordial past with its own ritual objects. Totems of a self-generated innocent world, her work was a talisman against personal memory, made with found fragments redolent of strangers.
Her untitled collages and boxed assemblages exploit the aesthetic possibilities of disorder yoked to the antique: worn scraps of paper, cloth, string, wire and wood, some painted with rudimentary figures or scribbled with the artist’s own runic calligraphy. Intending some primitive utopia, she succeeded in quickening a sense of time passed, of history long finished. The work invites you into dark attics fragrant with melancholy and the dust of forgotten lives.
Commentary about her work frequently hinges on the story of her life; but Ms. Baron’s formal achievement commands allegiance apart from her history. The intense emotive power of these arrangements of derelict bits stands free of any knowledge of the circumstances of their production. Her archaisms are counterfeited with great delicacy and sophistication; seemingly childlike drawing is accomplished with deliberate craft. She was a connoisseur of cunning blurs, blots and textural subtleties. Her encased structures plus the modernist ease of her compositions links her to Joseph Cornell, Anne Ryan and the much-mythologized Eva Hesse.
Through art, Ms. Baron sought a gnosis that remained secular while mimicking traditional spiritualities. As she explained, she was “looking for some kind of answer to what everything is about.” A zealous reader of anthropology, archeology, the Koran, Asian philosophies—even the speeches of Chiang Kai-Shek—she sought her guide for the perplexed in a Babel of ancient traditions outside the Talmudic one she was born to. Immersed in mystical exotica, she adopted St. Anthony of Padua, patron of things lost, as her personal saint.
What the work itself reveals is a passion for textiles. (She studied textile design in New York.) Raw materials of the rag trade are the keystone of her work. Fabrics attach to wood and metal. Collages are a stitch out of time, frayed scraps mounted on larger ones in a dance between faded, outworn stuffs and modern sensibility.
Her retreat into an invented Paradise Regained paralleled the rejection of history that underlay the völkisch theorizing of the Nazis themselves. The swastika, too, was a talisman against encroachments on the mythic harmony of a purer past. The Aryan idyll created its own archaic foretime, taking its stand on the ruins of Norse mythology. National Socialist theoreticians divided the history of culture between Aryan elements existing ab origine and racially alien forms that came later. Alfred Rosenberg, Nazi celebrant of “the Aryan-Nordic genius,” sought an Aryan ideal in the art of antiquity and beyond, into prehistory.
Questing after mythic Time, the artist enacted a defiant nostalgia analogous to that of her childhood tormentors: History is a mistake to be corrected by return to a past recreated in one’s own image. In this way only should Hannelore Baron’s art be viewed in the context of the Holocaust. Her work is not visionary as often claimed; Tikkun olam (perfecting the world) is not accomplished in the past. In the end, art offered her no redemption from the afflictions of history or of remembrance. Once lost, faith in meaning—independent of one’s shaping—cannot be found in art, no matter the intercession of saints. View these works as mementos mori for each one of us, marked and mortal in uncertain times.
Will success spoil Stephen Talasnik? I fervently hope not but suspect it has already. For more than 20 years, he has been creating beautiful drawings suggestive of architectural motifs. They insinuate perspectival plans for structures that never were but seem familiar, hinting at towers, scaffolds, roller coasters, palladiums, funnels, and shards from archeological ruins.
His drawings are included in a group exhibition now at Marlborough Chelsea. This is the second time I’ve seen them in a group show and the second time they bested all company, hands down. Recently, Mr. Talasnik has begun illustrating his designs with wooden maquettes-qua-sculpture. This is where the disappointment comes in. But first the drawings.
Worked on heavy paper, graphite images are traced, erased, sanded and smudged to create a dynamic sfumato that heightens spatial and atmospheric illusion. Interplay between precise linear elements—placed at measured intervals, softened by frottage and interrupted by shifting view points—yield plausible fictions that share a puzzle-making sensibility with Cubist collage.
Effects are haunting. By contrast, the wooden structures modeled on them are a let down. Is that what these things look like? Shorn of mystery, curiosity is satisfied with the most banal of means: balsa and bamboo strips held together with brads and epoxy. These are cousin to things fathers and sons concoct in the garage on weekends
Mr. Talasnik’s decision to materialize his dream-built tectonics signals a supposed insufficiency in drawing as an autonomous medium. These maquettes are less an extension of his art than the diminishment of it.
Susan Shatter’s painting is not seen often enough. The last time I looked at her work was at the American Academy of Arts and Letters. It was just two years ago at the Academy’s annual invitational. The two small oils were on view were among my favorite paintings in the exhibition.
Ms. Shatter has built a career as a painter of nature’s grand motifs: deserts, canyons, volcanoes, rivers and the sea. She is unintimidated by the untamed immensities that John Marin insisted every artist needs to confront from time to time. In this exhibition, Ms. Shatter tilts the other way, concentrating on more intimate, less ambitious views of the shoreline at Schoodic, Maine. Works are smaller and mainly in watercolor, with only two wavescapes approaching heroic length .
Every New Yorker who vacations in Maine will greet these works with a certain recognition. Familiarity derives from the cold, dense blue that is the base of most of the paintings, not from scenic effects. Indeed, there are no scenes, no identifiable spots or favored vistas. These are not the artist’s concern. Eddying water over rocks viewed at close range is a pretext for studies of movement and reflection, which are the true subjects here.
The five-foot long watercolors “White Spine” (2004) and “Sea Inside” (2004) are my favorites; here is the dynamism, reflective intricacies, and drama of her traditional large oils. The first captures beautifully the liquid dance of a sudden swell, reflecting the values and colors of the sky while throwing into relief reflected sunlight and white trails of foam. The second depicts the irresistible momentum and pounding weight of a moving mass of water.
Smaller pieces study the elusive echoes of light that ebb and spill over rocks at the the edge of a tide pool. In abstract terms, the reflective capacity of moving water provides a vehicle for extending color and its effects across paper. The entire ensemble is a masterful performance.
“Hannelore Baron: Collages and Box Constructions” at Senior & Shopmaker Gallery (21 East 26th Street, 212-213-6767).
“Group Show: Selected Artists” at Marlborough Chelsea (211 West 19th Street, 212-463-8634).
“Susan Shatter: Recent Work” at Lyons Wier Gallery (511 West 25th Street, 212.242.6220).
First published in The New York Sun, February 3, 2005.
Copyright 2005 Maureen Mullarkey