Of Tenements and Transfiguration: Hanna von Goeler “Reverse Alchemy”

AS | MAG
AS | MAG
Published in
4 min readOct 14, 2019

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by Jeanne Brasile

Hanna von Goeler, Reverse Alchemy, 2019. Acrylic, fluorescent pigment, rope, clothespins, dimensions variable. Courtesy of High Noon Gallery.

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.

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