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Review: Hauntology

September 14, 2010
A Spectre is Haunting Berkeley…

by Julia E. Hamilton


Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive
2625 Durant Avenue, Berkeley, CA 94720-2250
July 14, 2010 – December 5, 2010

Hauntology is essentially the science of spooking. Jacques Derrida first coined the word in 1993 in the book Spectres of Marx. He used the term to illustrate how communism’s failed Utopian ideals haunt capitalist society in a way that not only upsets the easy progression of time, but also accommodates a radical critique of the present.

In more apolitical terms, the “persistence of a present past” also seems so fundamental to the concept of a museum, the cannon of art history, and the preconditions of modern art that we might often overlook it. Works of art produced in “reference” to that which have come before also provide a self-conscious collapsing of art histories easy progression, including notions of originality, form, aura, and content. This philosophy of history is compelling; however, it’s not quite the focus of Hauntology, a show currently on view at the Berkley Art Museum. This show could have used a bit of focus.

Curated by BAM director Lawrence Rinder and local artist Scott Hewicker, the broad thematic umbrella of “haunting” primarily provides an excuse for the museum to showcase several works from their permanent collection, many of them recent and contemporary acquisitions. The 52 pieces on display reflect a loose group. A wide range of styles and concerns, tied together along broad thematic lines, both figurative and literal. An alarming number deal with being lost at sea: literally, as in on a boat and metaphorically, as in displaced or homeless. Other works are simply meant to be “spooky” and mysterious, or invoke longing, sadness and distress.

While the show doesn’t exactly provide rigorous exploration of the theme, it contains some incredibly beautiful work. Particularly “haunting” were three prints by filmmaker Donal Mosher from the larger October Country film and photo series in which Mosher has been documenting his rural, working class family in upstate New York. The use of the camera flash creates a high contrast style that heightens the eerie effect, but also gives the photos the quality of an intimate snapshot. In one, an outstretched, truncated hand reaches for a newborn. In another, an older woman stands in the snow gazing at the ground in front of a house covered in Christmas lights, her hair also sprinkled with snow. These people seem down and out, and according to Mosher, already are ghosts, haunted by both a traumatic past and an uncertain, unsettling present. Without the benefit of the personal narrative, the work also functions as evidence of Derrida’s original notions of hauntology—a visual critique of the capitalist enterprise through ghosts that have fallen between the cracks.

Another standout of a different kind was Marie Krane Bergman and Cream Co’s A Few Weeks, One Year Later (like August into September), 2003. Made from acrylic and pencil on canvas, the large painting is one out of an ongoing series in which Bergman attempts to attach visual form to her memory of observing and recording the color of a hydrangea flower as it bloomed, decayed, and disintegrated, from the summer of 2000 through the spring of 2001. Up close, one can register the presence of each mark as a visual record of the passage of time, yet as you move further away, time and space collapse into a large, atmospheric picture plane. It fuses the history of landscape painting with high modernism, and references structuralist exercises of Agnes Martin and the obsessive mark making of Yayoi Kusama.

The juxtaposition of two seemingly monochromatic works, centrally located in the show—Ad Reinhardt’s Abstract Painting #3 and Carina Baumann’s Untitled, from 2008-2009—helped me grasp the potential of Hauntology. Reinhardt’s piece, one in the larger series of Abstract black paintings he created in the early 60s, reads as pure black from far away, but up close reveals itself to contain a distinct grid in shades so similar and uniform that they collapse the idea of foreground and background. Reinhardt used abstraction to promote his own vision of aesthetic purity—yet the work is almost generic in that it contains the ghosts of so many attempts at “purging” in the art historical cannon. Baumann literally creates a portrait of a ghost, using a large piece of aluminum, under which a translucent white film of a close up of young man’s face gleams out very faintly, and only on close inspection. It is as if the shadowy face is our reflection in a mirror, peering at us the same way we are peering at the work. Next to each other, the two pieces almost haunt each other—Reinhardt undermining Baumann’s claims at depth, and Baumann at Reinhardt’s flatness.

Permanent collection shows help the museum assert its identity as a collecting institution, but so often and so easily resemble the treasures from a storehouse, roped together under a weak theme. However, Hauntology manages the trick of pulling together a collection of objects that go together, and the show comes off as thoughtful and essayistic. Leaving the galleries, I felt not necessarily spooked, but imbued with the strange presence of the past as a spirit that haunts the presence. History exerts a pull, a mourning. The past still lives in the present, if only as a specter.

– Julia E. Hamilton

for reference:

An interview done by Chuck Smith & Sono Kuwayama with painter Agnes Martin at her studio in Taos in Nov. 1997.