The following essay appeared in the catalog for the exhibition entitled The Human Condition: Figure Sculpture of Mary Kaye and Geoffrey Koetsch, installed at the ArtSpace Gallery in Maynard MA from February 27 to March 26, 2010.
THE HUMAN CONDITION
We strut, we fume, we signify nothing; our sound and fury smothered by folly and tedium. We have the brains of Ardi and Lucy and fingers that launch nuclear bombs. we are spun from a helical lottery; our patchwork of genes is dumped randomly in time and space. We paint over the profound mystery of existence with the simple mystery of a god who erratically smites and caresses, who composes absurd riddles but answers no questions, but who has the power to generate exquisite spiritual sensations and acts of social goodness in equal measure with doctrinal bickering, social divisiveness and holy war. [If there are any miracles they would be a modern science that has soothed much of what is brutal and painful in life, capitalism, which has freed millions from material need, and the enlightenment, with its brilliant system of laws and the rights of man. Flawed of course, they are man-made miracles, all].
And so Mary Kaye and I are moved to tell our stories: with a penetrating eye, Kaye's Angel gazes in horror at a failed creation. Eve, her mouth burned black by by the apple, sinks into the primeval clay from which she was formed. Adam, in a noble but futile act, swallows the serpent in an attempt to save his partner. Kaye creates characters who are stricken (The Blind King) or burst with brutal rage (Lilith). In Koetsch's The Dance, bodies sway to a libidinous rhythm while a cosmic moon looks on in wry amusement. In Journey to the End of Night, a man–detached and resigned–contemplates the fact of war. He cradles a bowl of oil (material causes of war) and an exploding ball of GI Joes. In Soul Burning at 98 Degrees F another man inhales the fuel that ignites the soul and consumes the body. Our tableau of the human condition tells also of struggles with the phantom unconscious and of bruises sustained in over six decades of life.
But take heart: within this bleak tableau there is power in Singer's saga: there is the self–sacrifice of Adam, the sensual joy of the dance, the spiritual fire of Soul Burning at 98 Degrees F and the thrill of poetry in The Language Instinct.
I am 68, Mary is 73. Out art is that of an old man and an old woman; it is the song of our experience. It is aggressively backward looking. Brancusi said "whatever is new in my art comes from something very old." we are beyond the thrall of technology, bored with gestural virtuosity, formalist gamesmanship and naive visual social science. We spend what time we have left telling our stories.
Bill Cohn and Erik Hansen, Industrial/Organic at ArtSpace, Maynard, June 3-27
To him, [the artist], this is creation,image of our insane presenceon the surface of the earth,the regeneration proceedingin downward orbits whoseparasitical shapes intertwine, and, growing intoand out of one another, surgeas a demonic swarm... "[We experience] "the extreme response of our bodiesto the absence of balance in naturewhich blindly makes one experiment after anotherand like a senseless botcherundoes the thing it has only just achieved.To try out how far it can go is the sole aim of this sprouting,perpetuation and proliferationinside us also and through us and throughthe machines sprung from our heads,all in a single jumble,while behind us already the greentrees are leaving their leaves and...loom up into the sky,the dead branches overlaidwith a moss-like glutinous substanceloom up in the sky."
Geoffrey Koetsch: Letter to Nancy Princenthal published in Art in America, June, 2008, in conjunction with the MIND/matters exhibition, Laconia Gallery [May/June 2008, curated by Koetsch a Ellen Schon] and the publication in AiA in April of 2008 of several articles on the impact of recent research in neuroscience on the visual arts.
To the Editors:
Geoffrey Koetsch, Boston
Thanks to Nancy Princenthal for her brilliant and thoroughly researched article on art and the mind [A.i.A., Apr, '08]. In early 2007, co-curator Ellen Schon and I surveyed the Boston area for artists who focus on mental processes as a subject ["MIND/matters," Laconia Gallery, Boston, 2008]. Ms. Princenthals' article and the "Brainwaves" exhibition at Exit Art in New York confirmed many of the trends we uncovered. We found that much recent artwork on the mind centers on brain mapping and healing. There is a cool detachment in the work even though many of the artists had close experience with brain surgery, dementia or bipolar disorder. Some of these artists were puzzling out the phenomena consuming the mind of a loved one and looked to neuroscience for clarity. Others were working on other topics mentioned in Princenthal's article, such as the "boundary" and the "binding" problems and the "increasing porosity of the body."
I am curious to know what "groves of academe" Ms. Princenthal frequents, since she says the "big trees" there are Freud and Lacan. In Boston we found no evidence of interest in Freud, dreams, Eros or violence. This may be because Boston is also a center of scientific activity. From here, it seems that postmodern academia has reduced Freud to the role of a shaman with a quaint personal mythology.
Historically, one could argue that the Expressionists were concerned with the behavioral manifestations of consciousness, the Surrealists with making visible its contents, and the artists of the '70's and 80's with enhancing the power of mind (via psychotropic visions, paranormal experience and spiritual disciplines). In our survey at the Laconia Gallery we found lingering traces of this latter category layered in with the symbols of the new mind science.
Ms. Princenthal chides the scientists at a Columbia symposium for not appreciating that art may be driven by ideas. It may be that the scientists are simply not interested in the play of ideas as a kind of mental gymnastics. Perhaps scientific thinking is instrumental, entailing the belief that ideas may lead to cures. The scientists may have it right by insisting that artists stick to their ability to inspire and to reconnect us to our affective selves.
Nancy Princenthal replies:
Thank you for your very generous and insightful response, and for bringing attention to the exhibition you organized in Boston. With respect to the persistence of traditional psychoanalytic theory in academia, the New York Times summarized the evidence in an article of Nov. 25, 2007, titled "Freud is Widely Taught at Universities, Except in the psychology Department." It reports the frequency with which readings in psychoanalysis are required of students in "literature, film, history, and just about every other subject in the humanities," while "psychology departments and textbooks treat it as 'desiccated and dead.'" The long shelf life of Freud and Lacan in art theorizing is particularly evident in texts pertaining to gender and its visual expression--and anything descended form Surrealism, including dream imagery. Of course what happens in the halls of higher learning, and in artists' studios, are two different things. In any case it seems we agree that the growing interest, among artists, in the ways that working scientists are exploring psychology is well worth consideration.