Who’s in control? The question has always roiled our best minds. Marx claimed it was economic systems. Freud said it was repressed sexual desire. Jung said it was primordial archetypes.
After WWI, when it became apparent that neither God nor reason could stop us from self-destruction, Freud’s notion of mysterious subconscious forces provided a plausible explanation for events that made no sense. Today, as man-made and natural disasters spin the world out of control, we may well be at a similar juncture.
In this moment, where no unifying theory of anything exists, two Dada-influenced artists, John Hundt and Camilla Newhagen, illuminate the extant power of the irrational. Hundt’s collages, which lean hard on beat-era figures like Bruce Conner, Wallace Berman and Jess Collins, seamlessly integrate imagery from old books, girlie magazines, photos, illustrations, engravings and other found materials. They address history, myth and gender relations. Newhagen, with truncated torsos fashioned out of stuffed clothing and other body-based works, investigates power relationships and the tenuous nature of human corporeality. Together, in a show titled Couplings, their works make for a visual feast.
Hundt’s life-sized collage of a garter-belted torso, Legs, greets visitors from the hallway; plastered with stock quotes torn from newspapers, this ticker-tape burlesque mixes eroticism with high finance. Legs 2, a rear-view version of the same figure — provocatively bent over — is inscribed with the faces of FDR, Shakespeare and other famous men. Elsewhere, In an untitled work, a smaller version of that same figure is fed to a meat grinder. In the late ’50s and early ’60s pictures such as these were seen as boundary-pushing sexual provocations. Today they run the risk of being interpreted as unwitting sexist blunders or, more charitably, feminist messages encoded in the visual language of Margaret Harrison. They walk a shaky and dangerous line. In matters of gender identity, Hundt is equally ambiguous; like the Greeks, he opts for a mix-and-match approach. His figures unite not only sexual opposites but birds, fish and reptiles. In Centaur, for example, the face of a fashion model wedded to a horse’s body stands atop an astrological chart, hinting, perhaps, that the ancients understood man’s beastly nature as well as Freud did.
Hundt has a particularly canny way with history. George Washington, in Presidential Family Portrait, suffers a dazzling hallucination: of a naked woman with a winged blossom for a head. Battle II, another colonial era-tableaux, has a swordsman facing off against modernity, the future symbolized by a wrecked machine whose vintage and complexity clearly postdate that of the protagonist. Octopi are a reoccurring visual element. They sprout from or adorn faces, male and female. Such images would be comical or even ludicrous if they didn’t feel like credible lucid dreams.
Part of Hundt’s effectiveness lies in his ability to conceal his painstaking handiwork. The component parts of his outlandish, fantastical collages come from many sources, but there’s scant evidence of his having physically assembled them. The pictures appear to have been photographically transported from the artist’s imagination to paper.
Copenhagen-born, Bay Area sculptor Camilla Newhagen offers a darker vision. It was inspired by growing up in “a socialist enclave of academic intellectuals where being aware of injustice and human rights was as common as playing on the play ground.” Her father, she added, “was a professor of history and political science, and I don’t remember a weekend going by without political or historical conversation…He grew up in the southern part of Denmark, neighboring Germany and was very affected by WWII.”
Newhagen, born in 1970, apparently was, too. Her bound-up “figures” – built from clothing scraps that are stuffed and tightly sewn or strapped together – speak of psychic and bodily trauma. Hans Bellmer’s dolls immediately spring to mind, even though, as the artist points out, her figures are neither dolls nor female. Even so, they evince a penchant for the grotesque, as well as the Dadaist’s disdain of violence. The felt suits Joseph Beuys made about his wartime experience also appear to be important touchstone for Newhagen, since the garments she uses are reversed to reveal their felt-like backing. The amputated features of her sculptures, the artist says, express “the ruins of the man and his power structure; the man turned inside out, the bad posture and heavy load of responsibility…”
Newhagen deflates the emblems of power just as skillfully as she animates the wounded who wield it. Anyone who’s ever worn a suit or been bullied by one will relate to Suit Sediments, a stack of male garments that sit, one atop the other, in roughly the shape of a chair. Looking at it makes you feel crushed. Pin Point Oxford, a dress shirt with a large chunk missing will likely activate the carnivorous impulses of those who feel less-than-charitable toward corporate elites.
Says Newhagen: “I think the respect for that sort of power is crumbling, and I think the man behind that sort of power is growing tired and disoriented.” Elsewhere, the artist proffers a gnarly shape composed of black bras (Dominatrix ) and a stop-motion video animation titled Decomposing Dress Shirt . It features a shirt and a small quantity of black thread which is drawn to the shirt like iron filings to a magnet and then repelled. Within the context of the Newhagen’s other works, the piece functions as a momento mori for corporate power.
Reading the headlines, I see no evidence of the man in power stepping down (at least not willingly), nor do I see him tiring, much as I have grown tired of him and his abuses. Still, I salute Newhagen’s efforts to "stick it to the man."
It’s nice to see the form and fighting spirit of Dada alive and well. I, for one, could stand to see more of it.
–DAVID M. ROTH
John Hundt and Camilla Newhagen: “Couplings” @ Jack Fischer Gallery through May 7, 2011.
Cover image: John Hundt: "Three Eminent Scientists"