by Joyce Beckenstein
MARC STRAUS GALLERY | OCTOBER 22 – DECEMBER 10, 2017
At first glance these two wildly different exhibitions, which are in fact consigned to separate gallery spaces, have absolutely nothing to do with one another. But spend some time navigating between Thomas Bangsted’s enormous constructed photographs of World War II battle ships anchored in frigid fjord waters and Jeanne Silverthorne’s intimate cast rubber sculptures of everyday objects, and the works begin to converse like virtual cousins. Both artists use fabrication and recreation to reconstruct the ways in which time dims memory—casting historical events into oblivion (Bangsted) or the obsolescence of the material objects of one’s everyday life (Silverthorne). They respond by setting themselves the task of resurrecting and/or preserving historical or personal memories. While the divergences between their works, in genre, medium, and scale are huge, they are inextricably linked by a primal human need to keep alive memories—to say, “I was here and this is the way I remember how things were.”
Bangsted and Silverthorne knew little about each other’s works before they found themselves exhibiting together, so it was startling to hear each speak of their work in archeological terms. Silverthorne, when interviewed, referred to her absurd, whimsical and sometimes morbid sculptural transformations of domestic trivia—light bulbs, hanging wires and old office chairs—as “excavated finds from the artist’s studio.” While Bangsted (b. 1976), a Danish photographer who grew up listening to his grandmother’s descriptions of Allied bombings of German battleships during World War II—used the word “excavate” to describe his painstaking photo collage of the battleship Tirpitz (sibling to the German Bismarck) which, according to archival material he discovered later in life, hid in a remote Norwegian fjord until it was destroyed by British bombers in 1944. Although there were written accounts of the battleship, there was no accompanying photographic evidence, so he set out to “virtually” recreate the image.
To make Slachtschiff Tirpitz (2012-2017), he used a variety of analog and digital techniques to mimic the archival reports of the icy November day when the Tirpitz met its fate. He also worked with a model builder who made a meticulously detailed computer 3-D replica of the Tirpitz (using the Bismarck as his model) which he photographed and set within the majestic surround of Norway’s fjords. He pieced together excavated fragments of available WWII images with his own contemporary photographs, replicating a wide-screen movie frame, so that Slachtschiff Tirpitz has the feel of documentary cinema. We accept and believe its visual and historical (in)accuracies as the composition sends our eye ricocheting from the natural calligraphy of naked tree tops of the Northern landscape to the sharp geometry of warship camouflage.
Jeanne Silverthorne (b.1950) takes on another topic, the artist’s issues of personal loss. Works such as Suicidal Flower (2014) are metaphors for the disappearance of the studio-based art world that she knew when artists’ lofts were affordable and the lure of digital technology presented no competition. Silverthorne’s large pallid sunflower, unable to carry its own weight is held vertical by a noose-like wire connected to an overhead black bulb, its spaghetti-like roots limply dangling from a rubber stand. She likened the dying sunflower to the artist’s struggle to create when the “light”—both physical and creative—no longer functions within its obsolete environment.
Just as Bangsted sees his art as a means of virtually salvaging a lost iconic warship, Silverthorne, assumes an artist-as-archeologist role by recreating the detritus abandoned by some vanished artist’s studio occupant. Though many of her pieces appear to be real objects modified to underscore their dysfunction—black light bulbs, for example—each work is a hand-made rubber-cast sculpture of a familiar throwaway that she has reconstructed by memory. What makes the comparisons between these two artists so intriguing is their ability to respectively package memory in ways that seamlessly meld fact and fiction.
The dialog between photographer and sculptor takes place in this taut space where real chases fake, despite major differences in the way each artist engages memory. Bangsted aims for precise verisimilitude, and explores combinations of traditional and technologically sophisticated photography to produce documentary-like photo collages. Sopnes (2017) probes with crystalline precision into every crag of a snow-pocked mountain that rises above a biting cold band of stilled water. It then cuts like a scalpel outlining a sparsely inhabited shore supporting a white clapboard church, a handful of German officers, and a camouflaged convoy, all appearing small and ineffectual against nature. Bangsted, when discussing his work, cites the influence of American 19th century landscape painters and photographers—visual journalists of their day—whose transcriptions of untrammeled nature evoked a sense of the sublime. But Bangsted’s monumental landscapes are not romantic depictions of humanity writ small in a metaphysical universe. Humanity in this era peruses its own destruction oblivious to nature’s mightier and more enduring presence.
Silverthorne might be cast as the romantic, citing her working class roots as the reason art should be accessible and therefore why she uses a utilitarian, everyday material such as rubber. Nonetheless, the detailed reconstruction of her cast-rubber sculptures echo the verisimilitude of Bangsted’s photographs. Wrapped Task Chair (2016) is a case in point—an ordinary office swivel chair wrapped in rubberized bubble-wrap and duct tape looks so indistinguishable from an actual bubble wrapped piece of furniture, had the gallery not provided a plywood base to mark this “rescue chair” as a work of art, it would easily say “sit on me; pop my bubble-wrap.”
Though other works vary in their resemblances to actual objects, Silverthorne refers to many of them as vanitas images, and cites as her inspiration seventeenth century Dutch still-life painting. Those lush realist compositions often featured succulent lobsters, ripe fruit, and bursting flowers betraying discrete signs of decay—a warning against the folly of self-indulgence in the face of inevitable death. Riffing on the Dutch still-life, Silverthorne’s Fleurs du Mal (2016) features a wall-hung bouquet of rubber flowers in various stages of bloom overrun by an entourage of caterpillars, ants, and flies. The flowers are phosphorescent, so if the work is viewed in a totally blackened room, it packs a surprise, a ghostly glow that speaks as much to the death of the art object as it does to the brevity of life itself (with humorous morbidity).
Unlike the seventeenth and nineteenth century artists whose illusionist paintings suggested a divine universe, Bangsted and Silverthorne are practical realists in their own time who put no upbeat spin on the world that’s just past them by. But like their forebears, they covet the memories, and etch them as historical blips on a cosmic timeline.
Joyce Beckenstein is a writer living in New York.