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“R. H. Quaytman: An Evening, Chapter 32” at Secession, Vienna

Text by Max Feldman

 

An Evening, R. H. Quaytman’s latest fascinating geographically specific “chapter,” is no less context heavy than its predecessors. Vienna and the Secession’s architecture are as much the subject as Quaytman’s interest in questioning traditional one-point perspective through painting’s dialectic of “exposure” and “withdrawal” (the concealment of the illusion of a picture’s real-space horizon at the very moment of its disclosure). This makes the enormous bright-white main gallery space, the building’s magisterial gold wreath crown, and Vienna’s invisible cultural texture, ripple with conflicts between traditionalism and the avant-garde, part of the piece.

An Evening comprises Quaytman’s appropriation of The Persian Women and Amazons and Scythians by the Flemish humanist painter (and teacher of Peter Paul Rubens) Otto van Veen, used like found objects inspiring and interacting with her own twenty-two wood panel paintings. Silk screens, lacquer panels, and misty gray monochromes abstracting from the van Veen’s cover two walls forming a forty-five-degree angle, whose combined measurements equal the length of Gustav Klimt’s Beethoven Frieze (1902, part of the Secession’s permanent collection), reproducing the “vanishing point” and forming a sharp arrowhead shape whose sexual ambivalence becomes a focus.

Placed alone on the outside edge of the wedge-shaped exhibition space, The Persian Women depicts Plutarch’s story of the same name from On the Bravery of Women. The story takes place during the Persian revolt against the Median empire: the women of the rebellious city expose themselves to the retreating, defeated Persian troops and taunt them, screaming that they cannot come back, a scene so mortifying that the soldiers return to battle and defeat the Medians. Van Veen shows us the whole narrative simultaneously. In the foreground, three women lift their dresses, grimacing, or looking shocked by their own audacity. This indecent display repulses the soldier on horseback at the center of the picture, who shields his eyes from the horrifying spectacle, his horse balking. In the background, armed riders race back to the raging battle, which takes up most of the left side of the painting.

An Evening is Quaytman’s critical reconstruction of this story, and she makes the piece’s biography an unavoidable detail. Van Veen’s paintings were stored in the attic of the Vienna Kunsthistorisches Museum until their restoration for its recent Rubens exhibition. Quaytman saw and contributed to the restoration process in exchange for their display in this exhibition, turning a story about disgust at what should be hidden into one about recovery and reconstitution.

Quaytman lets us see a long-unseen painting about the horror of seeing the unseen: a fissure in the masculine organization of feminine sexuality, exposing men’s fearful embarrassment at their own return-to-the-womb fantasies. Like so many traditional European oil paintings of the era, van Veen disempowers his female figures, refusing to show their hair, turning their bodies into a shocking spectacle of desire and disgust. Quaytman’s interpretations, offering us details of the central female figure’s self-exposure, show us that van Veen openly depicts female sexual organs, despite the cultural prohibition on women’s sexual agency. Quaytman then exploits the ambivalence of the triangular exhibition space: Is it a phallocentric point of organization? Or is it more complex—not only a model of the female sexual organ, but one lined with works by a female painter interpreting a male painter’s representations of “repellent” female sexual organs, reproducing a story about male anxieties concerning unruly female sexuality? This point is reinforced by Quaytman’s techniques and the content of the paintings, though these retreat behind the exhibition concept. Quaytman’s paintings are mesmerizing checked or dotted optical patterns, struck through with gossamer-like lines, forcing the viewer’s vision to the point of total abstraction, or chaotic expressionistic versions of the original image. Smoothly sanded textile, tulle, or netting resembles the figures from the van Veen, and Quaytman uses a gesso ground of rabbit-skin glue, pigmented to resemble the plaster of the Beethoven Frieze.

In her canniest move, Quaytman makes another long wedge on the straight wall, whose outside edge contains the van Veen painting, so that the works themselves contain their own version of the exhibition’s triangular organizing shape. Most of the panels on this wall are covered with glossy Steinway black lacquer; the angle of the wedge increases as it gets closer to the horizon, producing distorted reflections on the left wall continuing in space on the right wall.

An ingenious intellectual thrill though it might be, An Evening suffers from the same problem as all of Quaytman’s chapters. The emphasis on the mutual interdependence of biography and context means that unpacking the conceptual baggage is of equal importance to the works, but it means that theoretical discourse bears an explanatory burden at their expense; their complex, austere textures are overwhelmed by the no less vital matter of reflective judgment.

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at Secession, Vienna
until 28 January 2018

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