The theme of alchemical transformation unites the works curated by gallery director Sarah Scribner and artist Olivia Philips-Falk in "Multiple Choice" at AB NY Gallery. Alchemy is generally a form of deceit, but in this exhibition, it is a true means of revaluation. Unexpected forms emerge, twist, and converse around the room. Elise Ansel’s expressive brushstrokes seem to detach themselves from the canvas, taking on a life of their own, slipping and crumpling into anthropomorphic positions that mirror the twisted stance of Luke Kooper’s sculpture. Both Luke’s sculpture and Suzannah Wainhouse’s works have a rich texture that pushes us to examine their materiality. Though the shiny, glistening, and dynamic surfaces of the artworks draw us in, this exhibition expands beyond mere formalism. Themes of nature, history, and spirituality are dissected, examined, and laid bare in the gallery.
The meditative reflections that the artists’ works bring on are statements in themselves. They act as carefully crafted counterpoints to our current age of acceleration and increased production. Like the early twentieth-century sculptors that embraced the natural forms of raw materials to save them from industrial alienation, these artworks call on us to take the time to appreciate them and the process that brought them into being. Luke Kooper’s sculpture, for instance, is an ode to its material. The highly finished undulating strip is an assemblage of rigid industrial plywood built up and sanded down into a fluid whole. The sides of the untitled sculpture are like a cross-section that reveals the wood’s rings and contrasts with its highly worked and polished surface. From the harmony in the final work, it is hard to imagine that the sculpture isn’t made from a single board, yet the lamination of several pieces of wood creating an ideal block is an essential aspect of Luke’s practice. This additive process brings out notions of individual and collective identity but also allows us to rethink the sacralized relationship between the artist and his material. Luke explains that the form of his sculpture honors and accentuates the existing intricacies of the grain. This recalls the canonical stories of Michelangelo’s notion of his craft as simply a means of freeing sculptures from a block of marble. But in Luke Kooper’s transformation of his material, the narrative is much less focused on Man’s unilateral domination of nature and much more on the complementary relationship between humans and trees. Kooper reminds us that we breathe in the oxygen that trees produce, and that they capture the carbon dioxide we breathe out. At a human scale, and with no pedestal, his sculpture is a simple yet beautiful reminder of our cyclical relationship with nature. Ultimately, by placing his transformed material into the gallery space, the artist successfully manipulates the critic’s gaze into sacralizing the natural environment.
As we move across the exhibition, nature remains a constant source of inspiration. Suzannah Wainhouse recognizes that her paintings are influenced by her relationship with nature and the intensity of the weather that she experiences on the farm where she lives and works. Indeed, there is something incredibly organic about the thick relief of her artworks. She claims that each painting is built up on the canvas so that the final result rests on up to a dozen layers of experimentation, as if her artistic process was recorded in the stratification of her paintings. Beyond the palpable energy that is captured in these works, they manage to captivate our attention with their mysterious aura. Star Gazer most clearly reflects this and can be used as a framework through which to understand the rest of the works on display. The act of deciphering Suzannah’s paintings is analogous to the ancestral practice of extracting shapes, lessons, and directions from the stars. In my personal reading of Star Gazer as a reinterpretation of both the myth and the constellation of Europa, I also recognized a broader desire to represent natural phenomena in a spiritual form. The Mute Swan, for instance, is as anthropomorphic in the title as it is in appearance. Like an illusion, the unfixed strokes reveal both a human face and a swan, leaving form and meaning open-ended. This evasive quality, complete with the sacred geometry that playfully pervades her works, pushes us to a space of subjective interpretation.
Elise Ansel’s works are perhaps more literally transformative than that of her peers. Her wonderful paintings breathe a new life into modern abstraction and old masters’ paintings alike. She rewrites old masters’ paintings by turning them into abstract compositions. The works’ titles often give us the key to their interpretation. Lucretia’s Dance II and III are based on Titian’s Tarquin and Lucretia. By adopting a new language, both visually and literally, Elise is able to free the characters from their determinism. In this painting, Lucretia, whose rape is generally put forward in art history, escapes her body and simultaneously becomes the centre of her own composition. This series of paintings resolves the contemporary conflict between appreciating old masters for their technique and casting a critical gaze on the topics they depict. The beauty of color and composition is maintained while the narrative is questioned and reframed. In Sardanapalus III, the Delacroix painting is literally flipped on its head as the female figures take to the foreground where their abstraction, once again, allows them to escape their violent fate. Having studied English literature, Elise cites the final chapter of James Joyce’s Ulysses as a textual inspiration. In the novel, the female lead, Penelope, takes over for the last sequence, questioning the single narrative voice of the male hero. Elise similarly opens up the narrative of art history by casting a new perspective on the historical mythologies that are foundational to the construction of our western history. This rewriting also constitutes a material transformation. Like Suzannah, Elise’s paintings take the essence of mythological stories and translates them into the contemporary visual language of abstraction to reassert their relevance in today’s society.
At the core of "Multiple Choice" is not only a material transformation, it's an intellectual metamorphosis of the viewer’s relationship with the represented image and their surrounding environment. Through the artists’ exploration of their respective medias, abstract themes of nature, mythology, and history become valuable prisms through which to consider our contemporary relationships. The exhibition invites us to slow down, question our perceptions, and open up multiple perspectives. Simultaneously, the exhibition title, along with the freedom and fluidity of movement put forth by the artworks themselves, highlights a notion of choice and agency that, with the idea of transformation, creates a refreshingly hopeful message to take home.
About the Writer:
Mia Stern is a French-American aspiring curator with a BA in art history from the University of Cambridge and an MA in cultural policy from Sciences Po Paris. Her main topics of interest are new media arts and the structures underpinning contemporary digital visual culture at large. Most recently, Mia worked on a publication on NFTs for Taschen and at the Centre Pompidou's new media department in Paris.