Elizabeth Jaegeritself and else
The work of Elizabeth Jaeger explores the perceptual and psycho- logical implications of sculptural space, engaging the unconscious processes of the imaginary through enigmatic objects whose uncanny presence re-calibrates both their surrounding environment, and the conditions of their viewing. In her exhibition itself and else, seven large blackened steel rectangles hang on two walls of the gallery in a spaced-out sequence of vertical planes low to the ground, their width progressively increasing in subtle increments. A taxonomy of black clay vessels and bowls of varying sizes hang, float, or rest on thin shelves or step-like forms attached to the surface of each, in compositional sequences resembling interior psychic diagrams, or the flow of musical notes across a score.
This transformation of static objects into a dynamic field is intensified by the optical fusion of each vessel with the blackened surface of its steel support, sublimating the industrial modernist logic of the rectilinear metal forms into a painterly grisaille that appears as alternately flat and volumetric. This produces a condition of anamorphosis, activating what Rosalind Krauss has described as “the experience of ‘eclipse’, as one term (painting) is displaced by another (sculpture), and vice versa, so that the gravitational field of [both] is always experienced as shifting.”(1) This de-stabilizing of both the painterly and sculptural gestalt is increased by a faint aura of pale yellow light emanating from behind each rectangle from its yellow-painted back, both diffusing and emphasizing its three-dimensionality in relation to the wall.
In this continual alteration of our perception, each panel generates an image of itself in space almost like a shadow, introducing a temporality that is both corporeal and architectural in its projective cast. The dark silhouettes both flatten and intensify their volumetric forms, the absence of light gradually revealing subtle details that appear as the viewer comes close to the sculpture and their eyes adjust. The narrow shape of the first panel appears like a sliver or void out of which a vertical row of metal shelves appears, holding an ascending sequence of black cup-like vessels, whose size and shape determine the height of, and intervals between, each shelf. The language of industrial modernity — serial production, repetition, standardization, the mechanized cut — is internalized and transformed into a symbolic space that also holds the quietly assertive presence of larger anthropomorphic vessels evoking the body.
These corporeal forms, elongated amphorae with absurdly ex- tended handles, necks, rims, bellies, and sloping shoulders whose surface holds the trace of the artist’s fingers, introduce a sensual tactility that has five aspects: archeological, anthropomorphic, musical, filmic, and domestic. A group of three, rendered in black clay soaked in black ink and placed one above the other on the second narrow panel, one suspended from its neck by a cut-out gap in an open box, read as archeological specimens doubly de-contextualized, first by Jaeger’s extension of their handles into curved shapes that drape across and loop into each vessel’s mouth, and then by the sublimation of that erotic gesture into a larger composition whose rectilinear framing and grisaille flatten the vessels into an almost cinematic representation, in which each loop appears to represent the same curved handle at three different moments, raised, falling, and fallen, softening the clay’s rigidity into an implied corporeal pliability, and freezing that temporality into a still sequence, like frames in a film.
This sequential iteration of form becomes multiplied into a rhythmically dynamic composition in the fourth, wider panel, where eight amphorae of different lengths, placed horizontally in a tall steel box open at the sides, protrude through a series of holes puncturing the front panel, tracing a serpentine line vertically across its surface. The faint anthropomorphic trace evoked by the double curve’s art historical connection to both figure drawing and dance, and by the vessels’ mouths, shaped like open flowers, poking out through each hole, is countered by the vessels’ evocation as musical instruments, or notes, when viewed sideways. Each vessel extends through the holes and into the room in a pattern that manifests shape, volume and length as sounds of different tone, pitch, and octave, rendering the holes as a diagram of musical notation, marking the rise and fall of the notes in an undulating horizontal line that has been flipped to vertical.
In the final three of the seven panels, the narrow slivers widen to become planes, shifting the dynamic field from a score to a portal. The rise of the domestic interior in the nineteenth century paralleled the appearance of window and museum displays, manufactured furniture, photography, film, archeology, and the modern artist’s studio. Traces of them all are present in this installation, and the three portals loosely contextualize them within the psychological frame of gendered domestic space, staging it as a site of both projected anxiety, and subversion.
The patriarchal distancing of art from domesticity, home, and values associated with a private, familial space is dismantled in Jaeger’s collapsing of the boundaries between private, creative, domestic, industrial and public space. In the sixth and second widest panel, three large vessels that Jaeger refers to as milk jugs are attached to the metal surface at an oblique angle. Their flattened shapes and cast shadows position them as related to, yet independent of, their sup- port, whose haptic surface reads not as painterly, but as photographic. The uncanny presence of these domestic objects also evokes Edward Olszewski’s description of the sixteenth century studio practice of drawing the cast shadows of clay table models in changing angles of artificial light,(2) reinscribing the studio and the home as intertwined, non-hierarchal spaces.
Flatness is nuanced differently in the seventh and widest panel, where volume, line and space are understood through the viewer’s mobile position in relation to a shallow open rectangular form attached to the lower half of the panel, within which three thin metal steps are set, attached at the top and the right of the rectangle to create an image of a staircase, cast in shadow. Two large amphorae, their flower-topped handles resting on their rims, stand on top of the rectangle, looking towards a third, smaller amphora positioned at a distance on the far edge, its flowered handle drooping meekly. The psychodrama of the family is rendered as an outdated archetype in clay, anthropomorphically staged in a tableau constructed as an abstracted projective geometry of domestic architectural space.
The ambiguity of scale and form in these enigmatic compositions signals an unfixed meaning, articulated in the subtle monochromatic tones of grisaille which, as Briony Fer argues, “stands as a kind of shorthand for the blurring of binary oppositions and the undoing of prevailing systems of thought.”(3) This undoing is further indicated by Jaeger’s use of the word ‘else’ rather than ‘other’ in relation to ‘itself’ in the exhibition’s title, opening up a space for multiple identities and readings; and by her inclusion of the changing shadows cast on the floor by the gallery’s windows and pillars as part of the installation. This inclusiveness is extended outside to the street, where the viewer first encounters the slivers of black through the windows of the gallery and begins to perceive their relational forms unfolding across the wall, as a haptic experience in which sculpture proposes itself as a non-cinematographic cinematic form, creating new models of itself as else.
(Chrissie Iles, NewYork, March 2022)
(1) Rosalind Krauss, quoted by Mignon Nixon in ‘Eva Hesse: A Note on Milieu,’ in Sculpture and Psychoanalysis, Brandon Taylor ed., Routledge, 2016, p. 165.
(2) Edward Olszewski, ‘Distortions, Shadows and Conventions in Sixteenth Century Italian Art,’ Artibus et Historiae, vol. 6, no. 11, 1986, p. 101.
(3) Briony Fer, ‘Eva Hesse and Color,’ October, vol. 119, Winter 2007, mit Press, p. 33.