Of Tenements and Transfiguration: Hanna von Goeler “Reverse Alchemy”
by Jeanne Brasile
The corridor-like space of High Noon Gallery on Eldridge Street is the perfect location for Hanna von Goeler’s site-specific installation “Reverse Alchemy,” which consists of a series of intersecting clotheslines strung through the gallery from which ‘rags’ are densely hung. The scene channels social realist photographs by Berenice Abbott and Jacob Riis of people and tenement buildings roughly 100 years ago on the Lower East Side. This association is not lost on Von Goeler, herself an immigrant to the United States. Her choice to suspend her work from clotheslines, a symbol of the poor and working class, transforms the piece into a signifier of the people who lived here at the height of the Great Migration around the turn of the 20th century.
Pursuant to the people that lived here are attendant issues of labor and class. The installation symbolizes the poor, working class people who lived in the neighborhood, laboring at unskilled, low-paying jobs. Though “Reverse Alchemy” harkens to an earlier time, Von Goeler’s subject matter can be read allegorically as a concurrent conversation of migration in a contemporary context. The ‘rags’ also speak to manual labor and the value and dignity of honest work and the artists’ empathic position on the subjects of class and migration. It is interesting to note the artist installed the work herself, adding another layer of labor to discuss in association with her practice.
What is also remarkable about the show, aside from Von Goeler’s thoughtful consideration of the locale and its history, is her use of paint, rather than fiber, to create the draped ‘rags.’ Each rag, affixed to the cotton clothesline with actual wooden clothespins, demonstrates an alchemic triumph with her ability to transmute the raw materials — acrylic paint and pigment — into convincing replicas of cotton cloths. Each painted rag has its own gently draped or folded form that convincingly suggests the wind waving through strings of drying laundry. The paintings are not supported by stretchers, nor backed onto a substrate — the acrylic paint acts as its own support — giving potent and palpable materiality to the work.
The notion of labor, particularly feminine labor, is suggested by the subject of hanging laundry. Though Von Goeler refers to them as ‘rags’ they can certainly be read as diapers or dishtowels, more referents of women’s work. Feminine labor is also evinced in the paintings themselves. Some look like marbled paper or crocheted lace, incorporate stenciling or contain elements of collage — decorative arts and hobbies that have typically been associated as ‘feminine.’
Looking past the totality of the installation, one notices a range of influences, styles and periods addressed in the individual painted ‘rags’. One of these influences is Minimalist painter Robert Ryman. Her ‘rags’ are concomitantly white paintings and she becomes the consummate Minimalist in her desire to push her formative influences into new, fertile territory. By eradicating the stretcher or any other type of support, she pushes Minimalism to the next, logical step which is to free paint from anything other than its own materiality. Von Goeler notes she began her graduate studies in the visual arts around the time when painting’s death was announced. This desire to stretch Minimalism into new areas is both a formal and feminist pursuit — as historically minimalism was the solid domain of men, particularly white ones from a middle-class background.
Other influences draw from the timeline of art history with references to the marginalia on illuminated manuscripts. Various images of frolicking ladybugs, personified crickets and gnomes are present on some rags, adding a humorous component to the installation, but also referencing Medieval scriptoria with the concomitant, though subtle, narrative that women indeed produced illuminated manuscripts in the Middle Ages — attesting to their education, and participation in creative and pedagogical pursuits.
Von Goeler also includes nods to Dutch Golden Age traditions of still-life and vanitas painting. The former is referenced with imagery of butterflies and insects to denote the passing of time and the fragility of life. This functions mutually with subjects borrowed from vanitas paintings — a further allusion to the passage of time. The concept of time is heightened with the use of fluorescent paint which is used sparingly as a highlight. The glowing paint is paired with electronic lighting components that turn a series of black lights on and off at regular intervals. When cycled on, the black lights illustrate the passing of time as day gives way to night, and as insects appear to hover throughout the gallery in an artificial twilight. When the sequence is complete, Von Goeler’s paintings once again preside over daylight until the cycle repeats.
“Reverse Alchemy” is a wonderful immersive installation that can be satisfying as an environment to be experienced. It is equally compelling as a series of disparate paintings. The installation becomes even more commanding when one considers the complex overlapping narratives related to feminism, immigration, class, labor and the history of art. Von Goeler skillfully suffuses her simply presented paintings with a wide range of themes and influences — another sort of alchemy at which Von Goeler excels.
Jeanne Brasile is the Director of the Walsh Gallery at Seton Hall University
Reverse Alchemy by Hanna von Goeler was on view at High Noon Gallery in New York, New York from September 4 — October 6, 2019