A microphone, two water bottles, and what appears to be a squinting Michel Houellebecq, thinking or speaking or both. Made with a paint roller, Lise Soskolne’s Michel Houellebecq Ascending in the Horizon (2006) is based on a conference photo cropped in the shape of a downward-facing triangle and painted a gradient background that evinces hope or apocalypse or cliché. That year saw the release of the English translation of Possibilité d’une île (The Possibility of an Island, 2005) in which the libertine French moralist reiterated his quest to withdraw into transcendence – that remote island in heaven – until he and his two cloned protagonists realize that they are stuck somewhere on the way.
Sure, withdrawal is a complicated science: ‘if I withdraw, I withdraw myself. From what? From the race for city council, from active cocaine dependency, from the relationship, from the chill night air. To withdraw is to vacate what has held or kept you, and implies movement away from that engagement’, Brian Blanchfield writes in Proxies (2016), a recent essay collection in which he attempts to retreat entirely from academic research and the information economy we are surrounded by to rely solely on himself. That is, withdrawal is not just a matter of time and space, but about emptying something that was filled by moving away from it. Only, with Houellebecq’s squinting gaze facing two angles simultaneously, which direction to take? Forward or backward, left or right, up- or downstream?
Her first solo exhibition in New York in almost two decades, Soskolne’s two-part exhibition ‘The Work’ at the Mishkin Gallery (curated by new director Alaina Feldman) spans paintings made between 1999 and 2016. The sixteen paintings of the first part of the show offer a variety of strategies surrounding withdrawal. In Bikini Girl I (2000), painted just after her solo exhibition in the project room of Artists Space in 1999 and having completed her BFA at Emily Carr University of Art and Design, she copied the found image from a bathing suit catalogue accidentally sent to her. By smearing a slightly larger canvas onto the fresh pigments of the painted copy she literally created a mirror image, emptying its meaning by way of allegorical deconstruction.
After leaving Vancouver and gaining distance to photo conceptualists like Stan Douglas, Jeff Wall and Ian Wallace – at the time at the height of their Canadian careers – Soskolne also turned away from allegorizing movies and advertisement. But what to withdraw from, if not from the signifier? In which direction to look if not towards mass media? In The Work (2005), we see a freshly fractured eggshell next to a chick that has just emerged into a whole new world. Using an image from a clinical psychology book that describes the pathology of overproduction, the painting is a homage to Martin Kippenberger’s inflationary egg paintings. But this new world is not as promising as the chick imagined; chained to a cannonball, surrounded by an immense blue, its melancholic gaze faces sideways, missing the cozy protection of the egg, wanting to retreat to a world that doesn’t exist anymore.
I am probably not the only one not expecting this reference from a feminist known as the co-founder and core organizer of W.A.G.E. (Working Artists and the Greater Economy) and Industry City. In fact, the infamous German neo-expressionists who were introduced to New York in 1988 as ‘the boys in the bande’ (by Stephen Ellis), namely Kippenberger, Albert Oehlen and Georg Herold, became a point of tension for Soskolne in the early 2000s – ultimately culminating in her ambiguous love letters, Dear Mr. Oehlen (2002–05).
This tension is highlighted in the first part of her exhibition by deliberately staging some of their key strategies: paint rollers, palette knives, thick gesso, tape and typographic masking are applied to rehearse how ‘the boys’ played freely with style and technique. This proximity to what art historian Pamela M. Lee once described as this group’s ‘inverted conceptualism’, the replacement of reduction with excess, is further emphasized by Soskolne’s reliance on puns and ironic slogans either in the title or directly inscribed onto the canvas, as in A Feminist Issue Is (2005). However, as ‘The Work’ makes clear, these semi-homages are driven by the question of how artistic value is constituted, how the boys managed to substitute style for attitude and turn experience into exchange value.
If the first part of her show tells a story of how Soskolne changed directions – from deconstruction to ironic excess, and from mass media to symbolic value – the second part exhibits one cohesive body of paintings. Named after Bethenny Frankel, the incarnation of oblivious privilege as staged in her lead role in The Real Housewives of New York City (2008–ongoing), ‘Bethenny’ (2011–16) is the last project Soskolne worked on before closing her studio. At the center of the fourteen identically-titled paintings is a black void surrounded by an always smiling, sometimes sleepy crescent and various types of often childishly painted decorative elements such as flowers, grids or meanders. At times, this decoration is accompanied by readymade signs such as a tilted Christian cross or yin-yang or a factory the moon appears to dream of – a reference to her own labour activism?
Having left behind the deconstruction of mass media imagery, liberated from external references and authoritative sources, the highly idiosyncratic, enigmatic painting series takes one step further the analysis of artistic value, this alchemical transmutation of turning stones into gold. Not with bitter irony but with a strange form of sincere humor, ‘Bethenny’ depicts the production process of cohesion, style and interiority. Indeed, even if facing the backyard in the middle of the night, Soskolne manages to paint windows again.
Lise Soskolne’s ‘The Work’ runs at Mishkin Gallery, New York, until 12 July 2019.