Napoleon, through May 25.
By Olivia Jia
Walking through the doorway of Napoleon’s project space, Kristine Strawser’s rows of beautifully constructed and silky white neckties are immediately striking as objects that are equally absurd and ethereal. The ties jutting from each wall emphasize the narrowness of the gallery, reminiscent of a cavern; the room is imbued with a kind of cinematic grandeur. These walls seem to encroach on the viewer, ties protruding and looming overhead, providing a sense of claustrophobic unease.
Strawser’s ability in this work to break the barrier between object and viewer emphasizes this sense of discomfort. One is both forced and compelled to approach the artwork from various vantage points: the oppressiveness of the vast framework of ties is best felt when standing amidst the installation, yet the detailed drawings, marks, diagrams, and tufts of fabric invite the viewer to physically engage with the work. To observe the faint drawing near the floor, one must crouch; to investigate a bunch of miniscule fibers emerging from the wall, one must stand in the space between two unfurled ties and peer between objects.
There is something dangerous at work in this enclosed space. Though the longest of the ties extend perhaps a foot and a half from the wall, there is a tension implied in the way they are coiled. The room has the Newtonian energy of an event frozen in time. What goes up must come down, and we are privy to the fate of these beautiful objects only through conjecture. Strawser presents an installation that poses questions about its physical stasis rather than answers; the ultimate meaning of this work exists only in hypothesis.
The attention given to these details by the artist provides an installation without a hierarchy of objects. One could not truly experience Switch without thoroughly observing every element, from the angles of the shadows to the stitching on the ties. These myriad interactions allow Strawser’s installation to function not merely as sculpture but also as a metaphorical experience. One must dodge, inspect, engage, and stand firm amidst her work, just as one must seek to thoroughly understand, engage and interact with existing patriarchal systems in society. Strawser’s installation makes references to these patriarchal systems without compromising the integrity of her work as a formal structure.
There is an emphasis in Strawser’s work on both existing social systems and the breaking of these structures. One particularly clever moment of the show is a drawing on the window that diagrammatically shows the steps to tie a tie. It is a reminder of the tie as a functional object: somehow, in these simple steps, any individual may don masculinity. May a woman escape the trappings of her femininity in the professional world by donning a tie? Does she gain respect as she tightens the knot? Do these drawings provide the steps to success, or do they represent a system of oppression?
There is a relationship between this sculptural installation and Cy Twombly’s series of paintings 50 days at Iliam at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Twombly uses the phallus to designate a variety of situations; it is simultaneously a demarcation upon a diagram of warfare, a cannon-like weapon, a symbol of masculine aggression, and a prideful assertion of virility. Similar connotations are present within Strawser’s piece. The coiled ties are an homage to the power of masculinity, even as Strawser seems to subtly assert her wariness of that power.
Perhaps the greatest achievement of Switch is its success in harnessing ambivalence toward the tie as signifier; Strawser’s installation seeks not to place judgment upon the tie (or its patriarchal context), nor to celebrate it. Within this carefully constructed space, the tie is simultaneously phallus and flag, status symbol and noose. By providing an enclosed and immersive environment, the installation builds a space for the viewer to contemplate the politically and socially charged meanings of the tie, beyond its banality within everyday life.
Olivia Jia is a painting student at the University of the Arts. Her interests include aesthetic philosophy and writing, and she integrates these pursuits with her studio practice.