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McLean Project for the Arts, "Postcards from the Real," Artworks by Josephine Haden, Emerson Gallery, September 20 - November 3, 2007.

A t  O d d s  W i t h  I t  A l l :  Josephine Haden's Paintings by Donald Kuspit

Josephine Haden is an eloquent painter, a realist of sorts--I say “of sorts” because there’s an aura of eeriness to her reality, however precisely (always precisely) rendered--but her images are also abstract, which no doubt adds to their uncanniness.  The blues, browns, and greens of her landscapes have a radiance all their own, independent of the nature they represent.  Her blue jumps out at us, relentlessly alive apart from the water it brings to life.  We see this again and again:  In True World, 2003, in a host of paintings from 2004--High Low, Stairway to Heaven, Globalization, Rescue I, Rescue II, Eve, Adam--and in several works of 2005, among them Sea of Need, Crossing, Family Tree.  Haden’s paintings are composed of pure colors:  bleak browns, flourishing greens, and royal blues, each differently charged with light.  Seemingly incommensurate, all the more so because they mark different kinds of surface and shape--Haden moves easily between the rough, raw, rounded and smooth, refined, flat--they nonetheless fit together, strangely yet seamlessly, like pieces of a trialectial puzzle.

It is a spatial puzzle:  Haden’s space evokes the infinite.  It reaches beyond the horizon, sometimes atmospherically--“mystically”--blurred, as in Into the Blue and The Sky Is the Limit, both 2006.  It is the space of the Sublime Beyond--magically cosmic, emotionally profound space.  It was abstracted from nature--in effect disembodied--by such neo-transcendental abstract painters as Rothko and Still.  Slowly but surely they reified it into a formula, draining it of “originality.”  It became emptily abstract--lost its inner sublimity, its “romantic” intensity.  Haden de-reifies the Sublime Beyond by re-embodying it, giving it again the flesh of the nature that was its original home, so that it’s becomes vital and charged with “originality” again.  The abstract has not been lost, but gone underground, as it were, informing nature to uncanny effect.

Even when Haden’s horizon seems firm and intact--a clear, neat horizontal separating the grand space into higher and lower realms (the former empty, however moody with weather, and indifferent to the airplane that happens to be passing through it, as in Polyhedron and Solitude, both 2006; there are animals in Solitude, animals and human figure in Polyhedron)--it conveys remoteness, a sense of the immeasurable that is the gist of the Beyond.  Haden is a space mystic, ready to lose herself in infinite space at a moment’s notice, always looking beyond the horizon, as A Green Cadillac, 2006 makes clear.  The naked female figure turns away from the glamorous Cadillac convertible with its equally dashing male figure--a Hollywood leading man, a make-believe phantom lover--to stand, with her seal pups (symbols of vulnerability), on the edge of the world, isolated but independent, alienated yet self-sufficient.  There’s no desire in her figure, however desirable it may be to the mirage-like star, a dream Everyman manufactured to suit Everywoman’s fantasy.

Instead, the female figure conveys a certain aloof mindfulness.  Her hands are on her head, confirming that she is lost in thought as she looks beyond the horizon--ponders the infinite, a sort of modern version of the woman who stares at the sea in several of Caspar David Friedrich’s paintings.  She does not hug her body, as though in narcissistic longing for the fictional hero’s embrace.  She’s the real hero, standing alone and out of reach, like the horizon.  She’s looking out to the sea--looking for an opening to the open space of the sea--the opening evident in Cross Borders, 2004, Sea of Plenty, 2006, Sea of Need, and Into the Blue--the opening that allows escape from the landlocked lake in The Skunk:  Be More Open Minded, 2005.  The wide open sea comes up to the barren landscape in which the naked Eve and naked Adam live their separate lives (the separate pictures confirm the failure of their relationship), and surrounds the spit of land in No Trespassing, 2004. 

I am suggesting that Haden is an allegorist of alienation, and the sea represents freedom from the alien world--a world of alien people, such as we see in Team Members Only, 2004 and The Sky Is The Limit.   Sublime space--the space of the sea, of the sky, of nature as a whole--symbolizes this alienation even as it promises a way out of it:  a way into the nowhere--magical utopia--of the Beyond.  The wild horses in Totem, 2006 (and the animals in other pictures) also promise freedom--instinctive release--but it is not as compelling as the freedom promised by the Infinite, however illusory it may be.  Again and again we see isolated figures in contemporary clothing in what seems like vacationland--the golfing figure in Fore, 2002, and the bathing figures in Too Much Fun make the point clearly. 

These figures, often black and white or gray--a sort of undeveloped negative, existing in but apart from the colorful picture (not a “team member,” a sort of existential stranger, not to say complete outsider)--often appear on the edge of the space, as in Breathe Deeply, Transitions, both 2003, The Skunk:  Be More Open Minded, Adam, No Trespassing, Sea of Need, and Into the Blue.  They seem Angst-ridden if also self-reliant, however peculiarly.  They hold their own, even when they are at odds with each other, as in High Expectations, 2003.  The male figure in Totem suggests as much:  his outstretched hand pushes us away, affirming that we--the viewer and the figure--are at odds, and his gray figure is at odds with the Wild West Hollywood backdrop behind him.  He belongs no place, yet without him the landscape, however make believe, is meaningless. 

There may be a hopeful rainbow in the sky, but the naked gray Sisyphean figure pushing the Polyhedron--a magnificent painting, the rearing white horse and barking German shepherd beautifully rendered as they respond to the sudden appearance of the rainbow over the desolate distant city (the airplane looks like it’s about to crashland, suggesting the latent apocalyptic character of the scene)--is too absorbed in his futile task to see it.  Like the ladder in Dürer’s Melancolia I, the ladder behind him does not reach to the sky.  No transcendence for him or for any of Haden’s isolated figures:  transcendence is only in the infinite space, all-encompassing yet remote--paradoxically infinite and immediate.  Haden’s witty titles are deceptive:  Her works resonate with the melancholy of the Sublime.

Donald Kuspit is Professor of Art History and Philosophy at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, contributing editor at Artforum, Artnet, Tema Celeste, and the author of many books, articles, and catalogue essays.

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