Janine Antoni: Turn

Review

Janine Antoni: Turn

By Brian Karl March 31, 2015

Upon entering Anthony Meier Fine Arts to view Janine Antoni’s exhibition Turn, visitors are confronted first with a single small drawing set high on the wall above eye level. Floating in a modestly framed large white field of paper, the drawing Corona (2015) depicts a curled-up homunculus figure—a mature-looking fetus—its head set in front of detached pelvic bones, hovering as if they were a pair of wings. Their positioning creates a halo effect around the head of the figure, appropriately introducing the show’s theme of birth crowning—when a baby’s head starts to emerge and is surrounded by the mother’s birthing body.

This small yet richly exquisite initial gesture fits the physical context of the Meier interior especially well. Unlike the grander scale of many contemporary gallery settings, the several adjoining spaces within the gallery are modest in size, though there remains a rarefied atmosphere in the immaculately renovated rooms, originally designed for residential use in San Francisco’s well-heeled Pacific Heights neighborhood.

Janine Antoni. Corona, 2015; graphite, crimson acrylic, and 14-karat gold on paper; 30” x 22”. Courtesy of the Artist and Anthony Meier Fine Arts, San Francisco. Photo: Keith Petersen.

The gallery is located in Tobin House, designed in 1915 by Willis Polk in the Tudor Gothic Revival style, and it is worth noting that Polk’s restrained use of decoration was an attempt to lessen a perceived architectural chaos stemming from San Francisco's late-19th-century streetscape. The exceptionally clean spaces of the gallery’s converted rooms suggest the denatured and unsullied environment of a laboratory—a project space par excellence—which makes Antoni’s explorations of birth and the relationship between birthing mother and being-born child both fitting and simultaneously disruptive.

Turning the corner from the antechamber where the drawing is located, one flows into a small hallway in which ceramic sculptures stand on three pedestals. Titled Rosa (2014), Mary (2013), and Hearth (2014), these pit-fired vessels’ conventional forms are—like the initial drawing of Corona—partially framed by and welded into representations of different fragments of the pelvic bone. Antoni used an actual bone to draw out, from each of the primary clay forms their unusual biomorphic extrusions. These more organic yet irregularly shaped elements both metaphorically echo the vessels’ latent potential functionality and intervene in their tendency toward more regular shapes. Antoni thus translates and extends the experience of childbirth and related human female anatomy to generate customized, formally spare, and performative takes on the classic forms of fired ceramic sculptural vessels.

Top to bottom: Janine Antoni. Rosa, 2014; pit fired ceramic; 18” x 13 ½”; edition 2 of 3 with 2AP. Janine Antoni. Mary, 2013; pit fired ceramic; 14” x 7”; edition 3 of 3, with 2AP. Janine Antoni. Hearth, 2014; set of three pit fired ceramic vessels; 4 ¾” x 6 ½”; 4 ¾” x 7 7/8”; 5 1/8” x 8”; edition 2 of 3, with 2AP; installation view at Anthony Meier Fine Arts, San Francisco. Courtesy of the Artist and Anthony Meier Fine Arts. Photo: Keith Petersen.   

As in Antoni’s earlier works, which were frequently made from commercially and industrially produced materials such as lipstick, chocolate, soap, and lard, the various elements in Turn contain layers of gendered significance in their social incarnations. And, recalling her prior sculptures, these pieces make visible what is often hidden—signs of the body, of “femaleness”—while also revisiting and interrupting the tropes of prior art-world generations, ranging from gestural expressionism to minimalism.

The pieces at Meier also echo earlier, process-based performativity in her work, where the ambivalent relationship of the artist to classical forms, to her materials, and to intimacy itself is embodied in her partial destruction of the figures she generates in the first place. Previous examples of this include Gnaw (1992), in which Antoni chewed away at large minimalist cubes of chocolate and lard; Lick and Lather (1993), in which she cast forms of herself in chocolate and soap, then blurred the outcomes through similar manipulations; and Loving Care (1993), where she smeared the surfaces of various floors by applying dye directly with her hair.

Janine Antoni. Crowned, 2013; plaster molding with plaster pelvic bones; installation view, Anthony Meier Fine Arts, San Francisco. Courtesy of the Artist and Anthony Meier Fine Arts. Photo: Keith Petersen. 

She also pursues this process-based orientation and demonstration of ambivalence in the third and final component of the exhibition at Meier when she messes with the regular forms of a rectilinear salon or drawing room of the former private residence. In this main gallery room, where the viewer is disgorged after earlier encounters with the objects and images in the hallway settings, Antoni has created a bare yet immersive setting titled Crowned (2013), produced by dragging a pair of pelvic bones to recut the molding in the midst of the room’s restored antique details.

One primary artifact of the artist’s intervention in the space is a significant amount of sloppy traces from the process itself that she leaves visible—thickly dried drips and smears running down the previously pristine walls from hip height, at which she embossed the plaster surface. In an inversion of the conventional woman’s usual role of furnishing the domestic interior, this room has been left otherwise empty, and Antoni, in what has conventionally been a male role, has taken charge of the final refinishing of the details of the architectural space.

The result is at once stark and evocative, minimal and sweeping. It manages to exist as refined in itself while also interfering with the drawing-room refinement of the original bourgeois dwelling and its meticulous renovation. It does so with the final gesture of inserting a more palpable presence among the handful of other details from the original architectural design: the pelvic bones themselves, which confront and implicate any viewer who steps into the room.

Janine Antoni: Turn is on view at Anthony Meier Fine Arts, in

San Francisco

, through April 3, 2015.

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