The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2020

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FEB 2020 Issue

Josephine Halvorson: On the Ground

Josephine Halvorson, Ground Register: Rake/Chart, 2019. Gouache and site material on panel, 42 x 32 inches. © Josephine Halvorson, courtesy of Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York.

On View
Sikkema Jenkins & Co.
January 23 – February 29, 2020
New York

A hasty visitor to Sikkema Jenkins might easily overlook Josephine Halvorson’s 11 gouaches, tucked away in the back gallery. That sin of omission would be unforgivable and a source of eternal regret, because these outstanding paintings take landscape painting as a genre in a new direction, focusing on the insignificant rather than the infinite.

Geometrical landscape is a matter of perspective: we see real or imaginary nature through a geometric optic that simultaneously carries us into the picture right to the vanishing point and incorporates us as a point of view. Halvorson has a different idea. Rather like second-wave Romantics, she focuses on the immediate, the ubiquitous, the object encased not in a perspectival view but in a very limited optical field. Instead of painting sublime vistas of mountains or valleys containing the inevitable river, she paints, as her show title suggests, what’s “on the ground,” underfoot or, in her case, under her eye.

So in Ground Register: Rake/Chart (2019), a 42 by 32 “gouache and site material on panel,” Halvorson depicts what is left of a rake, its tines above the ground instead of digging into it. Surrounding the rake’s teeth, dirt and a few sprouting weeds. But that image is itself isolated and framed on the panel, and below it is a painted color chart, a kind of secondary image. Both the rake and the chart exist on the plane that is the work’s surface. Thus, Halvorson extracts from nature and then recontextualizes what she finds. The surface is the context now, so we are no longer anywhere near nature. If we are anywhere, we are in Halvorson’s sensibility, a place unto itself, separate from thought or even feeling. This is where the translation of experience into art takes place. With the addition of the color chart—an entirely flat abstraction—she is liberating landscape from the weight of its own tradition, not inserting herself into that tradition but changing the course of it.

Josephine Halvorson, Ground Panorama: Boundary Marker, 2019. Gouache and site material on panel, 36 x 132 inches. © Josephine Halvorson, courtesy of Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York.

We might think Ground Panorama, Boundary Marker (2019), 36 by 132, an exercise in parody because it takes the horizontal rectangle of landscape-orientation canvases to an absurd extreme: all we’re looking at is the ground and a few rocks. In fact, in its extreme length it recalls David Deutsch’s experiments with narrow, curved landscapes, but where Deutsch is exploring perception, Halvorson is simply isolating a momentary observation. Again, the image is isolated in its own context, rather like the matter-of-factness of the Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa’s heteronym Alberto Caeiro, who says about the river running through his village: “the river of my village doesn’t make you think about anything.” Halvorson gives us no anecdotes, no narratives, no sentimental attachments. Traditional landscape, with its thirst for infinity, invites speculation; Halvorson captures the plasticity of instantaneous perception.

Josephine Halvorson, Ground Register: Bricks/Ruler, 2019. Gouache and site material on panel, 42 x 32 inches. © Josephine Halvorson, courtesy of Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York.

Ground Register: Bricks/Ruler (2019), 42 by 32, the work that greets the viewer entering the rear gallery, almost reaches the point of narrative. The plane on which the actual picture is located is a vertical, portrait-orientation surface. The square image focuses on what seems to be left from a destroyed brick patio: about ten bricks form a vague curve that is tangential to what remains of an orderly brick flooring. To the right of the arc, pebbles and a few leaves. It would be possible to see here a kind of memento mori, the idea that with time all orders held together by force—bricks held together with mortar—succumb to entropy. Structures yield to time, but the arc of bricks constitutes a feeble barrier against a return to primal nothingness. All of this is possible, but at the same time, below the image, is a ruler measuring out the horizontal length of the pictorial plane. The ruler dissipates the pathos of the broken bricks and reminds us that all we are really seeing is Halvorson’s recollected perception transformed into gouache. We may affix interpretations to the image, but that has nothing to do with what Halvorson is giving us. These fascinating bits of reconstructed nature, like Pessoa’s imaginary river, don’t make us think about anything. They are what they are, nothing more, nothing less: splendid in their minute sparsity.


Alfred Mac Adam

Alfred Mac Adam is Professor of Latin American literature at Barnard College-Columbia University. He is a translator, most recently of Juan Villoro’s Horizontal Vertigo (2021), about Mexico City.


The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2020

All Issues