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The eyes have it

Stewart Oksenhorn
Mutu's "The Naughty Fruits of My Labor," 2005, ink, acrylic, collage, Contact paper and packing tape on Mylar (Courtesy of the artist and Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects Wangechi)
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When Heidi Zuckerman Jacobson first saw Chris Vasell’s “Bereshit” last March at the New York Armory Show, she didn’t see the whole picture. The large-scale acrylic painting was, to her eyes, a work of traditional abstract expression, with no figurative elements. Only when she looked closer did Jacobson see what Vasell had nearly hidden in his fields of blues and purple: a pair of eyes, subtly returning the viewer’s gaze.”When I saw the eyes peering out at me, I was completely stopped in my tracks,” said Jacobson. “I thought it was creepy, other-worldly.”

Though Jacobson’s green eyes are probably more attuned than most – she has taken the position, since last March, as director and chief curator at the Aspen Art Museum – it is unlikely that those who come across Vasell’s painting in Aspen will make the same oversight. Aspen viewers will be on the lookout for eyes, hidden and otherwise.”Bereshit” is part of Having New Eyes, a new exhibition, curated by Jacobson and showing through April 16 in the upper gallery of the Aspen Art Museum. The exhibition collects 24 works in a variety of media, all centered around the image or idea of the eye.In Jacobson’s view, a primary purpose of art is not just to please the eye, but to expand the range of vision. The artistic experience doesn’t end in the gallery or museum, with the actual seeing, but is brought out into the world with the metaphoric “new set of eyes.””I believe that successful works of art get you to look at things differently than you did previously,” said Jacobson. “And in that opportunity of looking, you get to see differently. A show like this highlights that opportunity, because it physicalizes the aspect of looking.”Jacobson was already in the mind of getting a different take on the world when she visited the Armory Show last year. She was still working as a curator at the University of California, Berkeley Art Museum. But her six-year stint in Berkeley was about to come to an end; Jacobson had already accepted the position at the Aspen Art Museum. It was with those thoughts of a fresh perspective that she took in Vasell’s painting.

“It was kind of a revelatory experience for me,” she said. “I had taken the job a month earlier and was thinking of going to a new place and how the parameters of my curatorial career would change. I knew I’d have to start looking with new eyes, that things were going to be very different.”(Jacobson has actually experienced an adjustment in her vision since moving to Aspen in July. “We’re so high up in the air in Aspen, so close to the sun, we can see things differently, much more intensely and with much greater clarity than anywhere else I’ve ever lived,” she said.)Jacobson had been thinking of a group show she wanted to do in Aspen, revolving around God. Her first instinct was to include Vasell’s piece in that show. But that very month, after a visit to Aspen, Jacobson was looking through a book her husband had bought on the flora and fauna of Snowmass Village, where the family now lives. The preface included this quote from Proust: “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.” That led Jacobson to decide to devote an entire exhibition centering around eyes. (The God-themed exhibition, Belief and Doubt, is scheduled to open at the museum in August.)”I thought that would be a provocative way to look at a new community,” she said. “But also for visitors to the museum to see a new program, a new curatorial process.”Jacobson sought out both works that were familiar to her and artists she knew and liked, but who may or may not have done eye-related art. One of her more fortuitous moments came when she called the Scottish-based artist David Shrigley, whose frequently humorous work would add a different dimension to the show. Shrigley, it happened, had recently made “Eye Balls,” a pair of small, acrylic composite painted eye sculptures that now sit on the museum floor and do, indeed, add a lighter element to Having New Eyes.Apart from giving the exhibition a variety of moods, Jacobson was determined to have global representation for the show. “I decided I wanted this show to be emblematic of my approach to curating. So I wanted artists from all over the planet,” she said. “And not just to have artists from everywhere, but to see if this premise had a global connection, and not just in America.”Eyes, as might be suspected, proved to be a subject of interest to artists working in Tokyo, Amsterdam and Berlin, as well as those in New York, Los Angeles and Carbondale, all of whom are represented in Having New Eyes.

The eyes have itOne of the eerier aspects of Having New Eyes is that it contains art that looks at the viewer as much as the viewer looks at it. That is probably what makes the exhibition as dynamic as it is. Gazing at eyes – enormous eyes, surreal eyes, eyes used as shapes and eyes only hinted at – and holding in mind the very idea of eyes is an excellent reminder that the activity here is about looking and seeing. Among the more hypnotic pieces is “Erika,” an ink and acrylic drawing by South African-born, Amsterdam-based Marlene Dumas. The eyes of the naked, blob-shaped figure look out with a blank expression that is startling.”It’s really seductive, mesmerizing,” said Jacobson. “You get drawn into her presence. You get the sense, when you look in her eyes, that she’s there. You get the essence of a person.”

In a similar vein is “Untitled (Thea Biting Lip),” a pair of C-print photographs by New Yorker Kristin Oppenheim in which one eye overlaps with another. The two images give a more fleshed-out perspective on the image, the artist’s daughter, than one ever could. “You know her. You feel her,” said Jacobson.Arresting in a different way is Anne Collier’s C-print, “Eye.” The photograph is an eye inside an eyeball, playing tricks on the eye of the viewer. Several pieces – the drawing “Her Mystery” by Carbondalian James Surls; Jim Lambie’s mixed media on paper, “Weird Beard”; Sterling Ruby’s “Eyes Staring at Etched Glass,” also a mixed media on paper – use the distinctive oval shape of the eye as a building block.The interactive dimension to the show is embodied by the two pieces, Thomas Scheibitz’s “Untitled (Eyes),” a drawing in pencil, marker, pen and gouache; and Vasell’s “Bereshit.” In both, the eyes are not readily apparent: In Vasell’s, they are buried in the color; in Scheibitz’s, the eyes are vague shapes amidst vertical lines that in another context might not be taken for eyes. But the two works, facing each other from opposite ends of the gallery, can be seen as locked in a gaze.”It’s as thought they’re looking at each other. Like there’s this intense staredown across this large space,” said Jacobson.The way Jacobson sees the two works checking each other out points out how Having New Eyes brings art to life. If eyes, as Herman Melville wrote, are the gateway to the soul, then Having New Eyes is a show where art has a uniquely soulful presence.”It’s as if the works have personalities,” said Jacobson. “You feel like you’re communing or interacting with them in a different way. People have said they feel locked in with each individual work. Like they are returning your gaze.”

Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.com


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