Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts
Through October 12, 2014
By Jenna Buckingham
Your fluted bones and acanthine hair
In their old anarchy to the horizon-
It would take more than a lightning-
To create such a ruin.
Nights, I squat in the cornucopia
Of your left ear, out of the wind,
Counting the red stars and those of
The sun rises under the pillar of your
My hours are married to shadow.
No longer do I listen for the scrape of
On the blank stones of the landing.
Sylvia Plath, from “The Colossus”
Heads and Hearts: The Work of Yoni Hamburger and Ashley Wick examines the daunting prospect of human relationships, seen through the looking glass into a world where formalities are disregarded and Technicolor prevails. Approaching the brightly colored screens of canvas, panel, and tube television, I was caught up in a world of distortion, disembodiment, and delight.
Ashley Wick’s Big Bang is a painting with two opposing faces in bright yellow, either lovers or reflected images of one profile, with their extra-long tongues extending towards each other across an expanse of cosmos. The painting presses symmetrical tension across the canvas in a way that is both charming and electric. The dynamism of this work exemplifies the dialogue of the show. Full disclosure: I am friends with both Wick and Hamburger and am very familiar with their individual work. However, this exhibition brings their art into focused exchange, revealing surprising new meanings.
Wick’s art has always been whimsical, but on its own I see it as expressing the subconscious, rather than a consciousness of bodily sensations, as seems to be the case in this context. Many of her works in this show have disembodied parts that get pieced together by the viewer, whose own senses are triggered through empathy. Hamburger’s work has always been honed and personal, and color and distortion were used as tools to cope with the trepidation of rendering one’s own friends and colleagues. The portraits in this show, however, are much freer, with a loosening of the brush that allows for fewer strokes and more physicality of expression. They seem more about the artist than his social circle. The more apparent layers of color also correspond visually to Wick’s bold spectrum and create a fanciful effect. Together, Wick and Hamburger’s works strive for identification of self and connection with the viewer.
Most of Hamburger’s work in this exhibition is completely new to me. Marie Hiding, a life-sized colored pencil drawing in green, shows a distorted figure gazing directly at the viewer and holding a shoulder bag over her midsection. The figure’s gaze to the viewer is intercepted by a second person peeping behind her, out of a door in a background hallway. Catty corner to this drawing lurks an uninhibited, ghoulish third gaze of a disembodied eyeball, in Wick’s stop-motion animation Eyeball and Aeroplane. The video shows the journey of an eyeball bouncing through sky, space, and underwater, with scenes of airplanes flying across the sky. The video is displayed on the nostalgically charged screen of a tube television set. This “music video” is both creepy and delightful, and accompanied by an original song written and performed by Wick in collaboration with musician Yona Davidson (Wick’s fiancé). The apposition of the two pieces changes their meaning. Instead of commenting on the sociopolitical implications of a woman hiding her body, Marie Hiding seemed to offer a hazy scrutiny reflecting the macabre ogling of the animated video eyeball. The compound meaning is much odder and more absurd, beckoning me into a world of chaotic, musical, and perceptual wonkiness.
Ashley Wick, Eyeball and Aeroplane, painted animation, monitor, wood bench, sound collaboration with Yona Davidson, 10 x 13 inch monitor
Heads and Hearts exposes the pretenses of perception. In his essay Fictions of the Pose: Facing the Gaze of Early Modern Portraiture, Harry Berger, Jr. writes:
…painters and sitters produce effects of subjectivity by diverging from and alluding to an initial set of conventions for objectifying subjects; conventions that are ‘mortiferous,’ as Barthes puts it, death-bearing, because they turn the sitters into icons. With the painter’s help, sitters become living subjects by seeming either to resist objectivity or to fail to achieve it. Berger, 91
In Wick’s Street Teet, our point of view is at street level looking up to see a woman undressing in plain sight by her window in a high rise. This video is accompanied by a large oil painting of a building seen from a street, presumably the canvas that was used to create the stop motion animation itself. The dangers of exposure and intimacy are playfully articulated here, as it is the viewer, and not the exposed painted subject, that feels embarrassment. Imagery of exposed genitalia fights off the stuffiness of the art museum setting. And Hamburger’s misshapen portraits of people who were in attendance at the opening reception challenged my knowledge of the familiar. The warping, colorful works attempt to see all things from all angles. They dig physically through paint and digitally through time and motion, in search of the bizarre.
The build up and break down of paint layers and hues evokes the anxiety of relationship. In John Making Music, Hamburger omits several overlays of color so that the undertone in the subject’s skin and the fabric prevail. In Avdo, the layers of paint are much more complete: the skin is naturalistic and the body’s volume is rounded. However, the undertones are still apparent, revealing the process of bringing forth a likeness. “[Portraits] are representations of both the sitter’s and the painter’s self-representation.” (Berger, 87) These portraits are likenesses, “icons,” but they also offer their own strange version of life through the emerging and receding paint.
Hamburger’s two self-portraits also demand attention. The works contain the thinnest layers and the least color of all his portraits. It is as if, without the distance of the other person, the artist’s approach to the paint has changed. This muddy aesthetic suggests a change in personal defenses: either they are more built up, or shed completely.
Hamburger’s largest painting crosses an entire wall of the exhibition, and features two subjects in a room, with a baseball bat lying on the floor between them. The title Keep It Up and the nude subjects’ expression and stance suggest an abusive relationship. The work is strategically situated across from Wick’s collection of small paintings, Love Stains. There is a criminal element to Hamburger’s work and a forensic tone to Wick’s pieces. The figures in Keep It Up were recognizable to attendees of the opening as friends of the artist and of each other, but their liaison in the painting is twisted. In Love Stains, childlike renderings of sex manage to suggest the violence that is possible with love.
Heads and Hearts isn’t just a critical look at intimacy and social relationships, it’s an invitation into strangeness: the strangeness of our insecurities and the odd ways we try to hide and compensate for them. Using color, texture, motion, and sound, Hamburger and Wick acknowledge the colossal endeavor of trying to know another, or even oneself.
Jenna Buckingham is an artist living in Philadelphia. She recently graduated with an MFA from Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.
Berger, Jr. Harry. “Fictions of the Pose: Facing the Gaze of Early Modern Portraiture.” Representations 46.1 (1994): 87-120. Web.
Plath, Sylvia. “The Colossus.” The Colossus. New York: Vintage International, 1998. 36-37. eBook.