we’re installing an exhibition called JAY DEFEO / ALTER EGO
here’s a bit about my curatorial vision for the show:
When i began considering an exhibition of pairs of related works by Jay DeFeo – twins, if you will – I thought of Joseph Conrad’s story The Secret Sharer. In it, the main character, an inexperienced and timid ship’s captain, takes in and hides a fugitive, a murderer. The two characters are uncannily similar, but in other ways, polar opposites. It’s only through their interaction and the ensuing risk the captain takes for the sake of the fugitive that he comes to understand himself and his place in the world.
DeFeo often worked from a model, a mundane object that she’d explore repeatedly in a wide variety of media, moving between representation and abstraction as poetically and with as much facility as she’d move between oil paint, graphite, collage and experiments in the dark room. Until recently, I’ve considered these serial works as meditations on an object — dedicated efforts to explore and understand formal qualities while playfully experimenting with media, where discoveries made in one work led to the next — her ultimate goal being to transcend the everyday and uncover the sublime. No mean feat. But working on this exhibition, I’ve realized it’s more complicated and interesting than that. What this exhibition does is examine similarities and differences between related works to discover what DeFeo realized in her practice — that opposition is interconnection.
DeFeo is well known for using high contrast within individual works. Consider the gray-scale palette of most of her drawings and paintings, or the hours she spent on darkroom manipulation — dodging to make white whiter and burning shadows velvety black. Or the way within one work she used both thickly impastoed gestures and delicate marks, or matte and gloss, straight lines with curved, both hard and soft edges, or flatness and deep space.
DeFeo frequently began her artwork in pairs or as larger groups. Often, finished pieces would be formally similar; at other times they’d develop into works Jay called “somewhat opposite.”
Examples of these contrasting duos are at the heart of this exhibition and range from pairs of photographs that are mirror images (she’d make one print, then flip over the negative to make the other), to the monumental oil paintings Hawk Moon No. 1 and Hawk Moon No. 2, the first of which arcs and angles on a light, dove-grey field while the other spreads in the opposite direction in a space of inky black. They are doppelgängers, or look-alikes, like Conrad’s captain and fugitive, existing in a state of duality, at once similar and antithetical.
DeFeo’s “somewhat opposite” works and Conrad’s doppelgängers should be examined through the lens of the Chinese concept of yin yang, where seemingly opposing forces are in fact complimentary or interconnected. Yin is the North slope, the shady place, the feminine; yang is sunlight and masculine. They give rise to one another and neither exists without the converse. For DeFeo, each artwork was a struggle for balance between light and dark, purpose and accident, the instantaneous and labored, the enormous and minute, the rational and intuitive, application and obliteration, the physical and spiritual. Balance, by its nature, is precarious.
DeFeo’s entire oeuvre can be seen as a quest for equilibrium. Her large paintings are downright enormous, athletically gestural, instinctive to the point of being primal, bold and public. Her drawings, photographs and collages are delicately-formed, sensitive, inward-looking, thoughtful, private.
“Alter ego” is Latin for “the other I,” the side of one’s personality that may be hidden from the public or only exhibited in certain circumstances. One way of interpreting The Secret Sharer is to see the fugitive as not an actual person — no one other than the captain ever sees him – but the risk-taking, passionate aspects of the captain’s personality he otherwise kept hidden.
Conrad postulates that nothing is wholly good or evil, black or white: opposites interact to create a whole greater than the parts. Chinese philosophy goes further — the fusion of opposites in physical matter brought the world into being. DeFeo’s genius is her ability to find balance, to harness contrast within each work as well as between works to access the dynamism of creation.
an exhibition catalogue with this introduction and an essay veronica roberts, curator of modern & contemporary art at the blanton museum of art, is available through the gallery. veronica and i will do a panel discussion about defeo’s work with julian cox, founding curator of photography and chief curator of the de young museum, on saturday, 26 september.
all images copyright 2015 the jay defeo trust/artists rights society (ars), new york.