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Caitlin Cunningham offers alternate explanations of her Gaugin-attacking show

May 16, 2013
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imageA couple weeks ago, I reviewed Caitlin Cunningham’s solo show at sophiajacob. The show is an extended attack on Gauguin, and in my analysis, I played Cunningham off against the street artist Gaia, who was at the time showing Gauguin-inspired work at the BMA. I argued that Cunningham’s show worked better as a critique of the romanticism surrounding contemporary street art than of the 19th century French painter. In this context, I argued, Cunningham’s show made the BMA’s attempt to use Gaia to reach out to the community seem like a colonial misadventure.

On the other hand, I argued that Gaia’s attempt to engage the community made Cunningham’s show appear hermetic, insular, and safe. Without revealing the details of our exchange, it is fair to say that Cunningham thought my treatment was harsh or unfair. I asked her to write a letter to the paper explaining the intentions behind the show–because, if the show was not, at least in part, an attack on Gaia, I could not understand why an artist as good as Cunningham would devote so much work, and her first solo show, to a take-down of Gauguin. (It is really hard to overstate how much I liked her previous work).

Cunningham didn’t write a letter explaining her intentions, but the art website Daily Serving did release a fascinating interview with her today, in which she comes across as articulate as she is talented. It is definitely worth reading. Among other things she says:

“One thing I was very conscious of doing was giving a specific voice to the internal authority figure that is generally present as a form of anxiety within my practice. The authoritarian voice in my head is an amalgam of various domineering and dismissive voices. I tried to imagine specifically that the voice of judgment was Gauguin himself, knowing him to be emotionally abusive and excited by humiliation, of women and of Van Gogh and others who loved him. Under the fantasy of his tutelage, the only response that I believed I could use to affirm my agency was to fall far short of his impenetrable genius as a painter, sculptor, and image producer. Consciously taking a submissive role in the production of my objects, I’d sort of hoped to incite some judgment of my effectiveness as an image-maker, forcing a critical voice maybe similar to what Gauguin or perhaps Georg Baselitz might use to degrade my work.”

I did mention the intentionally ineffective image of a ship, but my criticism was directed more towards what felt like the kind of over-intellectualization that graduate school can engender. And the  interview is so full of philosophical musings, referring to Rousseau, Deleuze (or at least his concept of the rhizome), and Lefebvre–but while such intellectualism doesn’t always make for great image-making, it does make for a fascinating conversation. And it definitely makes me want to see the show again.

Cunningham’s show, which is now, “informally titled” Tan Penis Island is up through May 25 at sophiajacob. Cunningham is also one of the six Sondheim finalists, so her work will be displayed in the Walters Museum this summer.

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