Sunday, February 1st, 2009

Kirsten Hassenfeld at Smack Mellon

January 17-February 22, 2009
92 Plymouth Street, at Washington Street
Brooklyn, NY, 718 834 8761

Kirsten Hassenfeld Dans La Lune 2007.  Paper with mixed media, dimensions variable. Photo by the artist
Kirsten Hassenfeld, Dans La Lune 2007. Paper with mixed media, dimensions variable. Photo by the artist

It is hard to imagine an installation looking better in the industrial Smack Mellon main exhibition hall than Kirsten Hassenfeld’s current installation, Dans La Lune.

Smack Mellon is a venue of raw physicality, with towering concrete columns framed in industrial steel, so it is easy for works to be swallowed whole in its cavernous expanse.  Hassenfeld subdues this beast of a space with the humblest of materials: little more than white vellum and foam core.  So white, so lacking in mass, Dans La Lune is phantasm, a chimera, part paper-doll and part Fabergé egg.

There is mind blowing virtuosity at play in the individual objects that make up this installation. For instance, using only craft scissors, vellum, pipe cleaners, PVA archival glue, and the technique of quilling (curling the paper by applying the edge of the scissors), Hassenfeld fashions a shepherd with a lamb, ensconced in a castle, all hanging from a larger jewel. But a heightened mastery of craft can only be a first step to understanding this work. Technique in itself, even this masterly, can only serve as a vehicle for meaning, not the meaning itself.

From a distance, Dans La Lune appears to be a constellation of hanging spheres sprouting landscapes of pale geodes. Closer inspection reveals not only jewel and filigree shapes, but also silhouettes cut accordion-like into portraits, doily animals and figures, scenes of Eros and Psyche, and other assorted images.  In short, the kinds of images associated with heirlooms, cameos, and other personal objects most often categorized as keepsakes, and most often found decorating the top of bedroom dressers.  Except instead of being made from the usual durable materials – precious metals, polished stones, and carved ivory – they are here presented in the flimsiest of materials and, it must be added, at many times the scale of the objects that inspired them.

In this disposable age of ours one could  take the hyperbolic scale and choice of materials to be indicative of an ironic or belittling commentary towards keepsakes.  But this installation is simply too circumspect to have been made by an uncaring hand.  Something warm and embracing, not cool and distancing is clearly being asserted.

The key to Hassenfeld’s installation lies not in the objects themselves but in the negative space that exists between them.  Not mere empty space, but a potent, energized negative space that is somehow integral to the understanding of the object’s identity.  Specifically,Dans La Lune is installed in the center of the gallery and occupies about a third of the area.  If we count only the volume occupied solely by the individual elements they fill, at best, five percent of the total exhibit hall.  But the reality is that for the viewer, the perceived space ofDans La Lune is not defined by the objects in it, but by the negative space that surrounds it: that charged awareness which floods the entire gallery with shimmering warmth.

The sum is greater than the parts, but the parts point the way: abounding references to family and memory, heirlooms and ancestry, fabricated with undeniable care, and expanded to monumental proportions from apparently gossamer components that have the capacity to charge a gallery the size of a ballroom. Dans La Lune, according to Hassenfeld, translates loosely as “head in the clouds”, which is odd in a way since the experience of standing beneath and among its hanging cosmology leaves one feeling, more than anything else, unaccountably, wonderfully, grounded.