The seeking of the caress constitutes its essence by the fact that the caress does not know what it seeks. This “not knowing,” this fundamental disorder, is the essential. It is like a game with something slipping away, a game absolutely without project or plan …… It is made up of this increase of hunger, of ever richer promises, opening new perspectives onto the ungraspable.
— Emmanuel Levinas, Time and the Other (1848)i
The bodies depicted in Vivian Greven’s paintings morph from classical flesh into the cyborg body, replacing the shimmering shine of polished marble with a LCD screen color palette. These figurative paintings contain invisible dimensions though appear to be compressed onto a flat digital screen. On her canvas, the circular accumulation of paint, while seems to mimic airborne particles adhering to its surface, also materializes a phantasm of space that condensed onto the picture plane. Meanwhile, the meticulous hollows are the artist’s attempt to chisel through to that Other space. The transformation from two to three-dimensional space on canvas emerges subtly, lingering to churn up a sensory impact. To discern the delicate dimensional changes in these paintings, viewers have to adjust their positions in relation to the works, relinquishing their bodily control to the painted bodies on canvas.
The cropped, enlarged body parts in Greven’s paintings not only address contemporary body politics, but also provide an alternative perspective on human body through such a viewing mechanism. Building on the artist’s earlier martini glass series, X I, X II, and X III offer different interpretations of L’Origine du monde (Courbet, 1866). The series stems from the artist’s scrupulous examination of voluminous Venus sculptures throughout Western art history. Akin to Luce Irigaray’s perceptive revelation of the phallogocentrism in traditional Western philosophy, Greven’s investigation remains vigilant towards the representation of gendered bodies in art history.ii The deliberate subject matter of Venus lies in a long tradition of the idealized female body, as well as the fact that Venus bears no biological meaning of a female. Moreover, the canonical Venus sculptures are mostly created by men, hence tainted by a layer of male gaze which is essentially instilled with stereotypes of femininity. Greven adapts the geometric beauty of the martini glass, an archetype of her painting series, to reinterpret the Neoclassical body of Venus, yet such pure, translucent, and ethereal form once signified the middle-class American value in the 1960s. Following the advent of Brutalism sounded the death knell for such a value system, whose clean and sterile symbols are now deemed as lacking lived reality. Therefore, the martini glass shape not only represents the abstracted form of Venus on an aesthetic level, but also serves as a clever piece of visual rhetoric, elucidating the double meaning of a sterile goddess. By unearthing the absence of female corporeality in the representation of Venus, the artist elicits an attempt to re-engage with the politics of image.
Meanwhile, these images of cropped bodies are designated to provoke momentary disorientation for viewers. Sharp contours, fluid color fields, mirror images of limbs, and the resembling effect of photo negatives: these visual components subvert viewers’ visual experience, and simultaneously offer clues for them to recalibrate image-reading schema. Instead of a sight-canvas one-way projection, Greven’s works further mobilize viewers to apprehend the content through a self-referential process. Situating her figurative paintings as reflective surfaces, the artist alludes viewers to confirm their own physical existence through the embodiment of the Other in her paintings; this experience enables viewers to come closer to her poetic delineation of the Other.
In Greven’s paintings, the bodies are positioned among contagious airborne particles. These particles transform into drops of acrylic paint on her canvas, settling onto a body, a face, or between two figures brushing up against each other. Permeating the ambience of Greven’s practice comprises two kinds of contagions: one breeds fear and separation, the other poignantly hatches longing for closeness. Diffusing apprehension and affection, the artist acquires a mechanism of contagion that induces individuals to touch, infiltrate, and even remould and destroy one another. Beyond that, Greven’s paintings allure the viewers in the manner of erotic pleasure which serves both as the foundation and the analogon of aesthetic pleasure. The difference between the former and the latter is that erotic pleasure cannot be translated through language or conveyed by thoughts—as its dissemination builds upon contagion rather than communication. This grants Greven’s artworks a state of richness which language cannot exhaust. The same may be said when we face her paintings at Gallery Vacancy, searching for the right descriptor in our lexicons. Every time we seem to grasp onto a rhetorical savior, the powerlessness of words instantly drag us into the abysm of speechlessness once more. It is better to merely let our lips and tongues experience the eroticism brewed within the paintings, among the fluctuation of flickering hues and tints.
Fear, love, and desire saturate the early history of Western European images, which influences Greven as her frequent citation of classical morphography. Even though painting techniques, exhibition spaces, and viewing environments have changed in the present era, the artist’s works still deliver a sense of emotional contagion. We are reminded of Michael Almereyda’s modern adaptation of Hamlet (2000), which mise en scène Shakespeare’s most acclaimed tragedy to a video rental store in New York, where the question of “to be or not to be” remains valid. These ancient words pass on their relevance so that they prevail among modern people. The visual representation of bodies shares the same historical significance as countless reproductions of Shakespeare’s great drama, leading to Aby Warburg’s concept of pathosformel.iii In his research on antiquity, Warburg coined the word to describe the “passionate gesture language” and “emotionally charged visual trope[s]” that repeatedly appear within the history of images. Evidently, these patterns seem to resurface in a preordained manner in Greven’s works.
The word “negatives” from the exhibition title refers both to photographic negatives and the Other cloaked in negative space. The mechanism of contagion, the body schema, and painting techniques that Greven undertakes all signal an ambiguous relationship with the Other, or more explicitly, love with the Other.
Greven’s paintings incorporate no natural light source, whereas they are radiated by an inherent fluorescence. Consequently, negative space emerges from the background of the canvas, reclaiming the foreground position. It alters the meaning of the painting: as one gazes into the defined body posture, the negative space pushes itself forward in vibrant color, obstructing the visual connection between the viewer and the painted subject. In this manner, the artist endeavors to unveil the concealed underneath the immaculate and flawless figure of Venus. Subsequently, she tampers with her painting surface, inserting granular coats of paint, cutting and piercing through the image, and maneuvering color temperature to forge a tactility that is separate from her image— she even purposefully masquerades some of her figures. Greven’s manipulation of texture deliberately creates an obstacle for viewing: when we lock our gaze onto the glacial bodies, negative space continuously announces its presence; when we turn to the objects of otherness, we realize that it is impossible to properly grasp the escaping property. This viewing experience echoes the touching-touched relationship in phenomenology. As Merleau-Ponty pointed out, there exists a “reversibility of the seeing and the visible, of the touching and the touched…always imminent and never realized in fact.”iv The works shown in this exhibition evince such reversibility as the positive space ceaselessly attempts at reversing negative space, while it nevertheless leads to a dead end that reaches infinitely close to realization; the myriad of figure-ground reversals constitutes the works’ dynamic state.
This dynamism duplicates the visceral sensation characterized in Emmanuel Levinas’s “Phenomenology of Eros.” In his interpretation, the meaning of Eros is always controlled by the desire to possess, but this longing for the absolute Other will always be rejected. The caress of lips, hands, and gaze, a blind exploration filled with Eros, always seeks to come into contact with a mysterious negative space, and hopes to unify with the heterogeneous subject. However, these explorations are doomed to failure. Zooming in and over displaying the body parts, Greven’s paintings insinuate the objectification of her figures, deepening the complexity and distance resulting in her surface disruption. Such treatment ensures the ultimate failure of passion, retaining an insatiable craving.
Perhaps Greven’s paintings can be interpreted as a yearning towards the caress of the alterity. The exhibition The Negatives encompasses artworks that instigate the presence of negatives through a multitude of painterly intervention. The presence of negatives manifests their heterogeneity through the ghost space, the compositional background, and the Other. Within the works of art, the painter and the painted passive objects, the figure and ground, the front and back of canvas, the bodies of painted subjects and the viewers, and the ideal of beauty and its corporeality altogether form a matrix of positive-negative relations. They desire, devour, and negate one another, refusing any certainty, definite physical boundary, partisan viewing angle, or invariable dynamic structure. Both welcoming and forbidding, the inapproachable and the intangible spring from the undercurrent of Greven’s works.
i Emmanuel Levinas, Time and the Other, trans. WANG Jiajun. (Wuhan: Changjiang Literature Press, 2020), p.84-85.
ii Jean-Luc Nancy, The Pleasure in Drawing, trans. WEI Guangji. (Kaifeng: Henan University Press, 2016), p.71.
iii Colleen Becker, ‘Aby Warburg’s Pathosformel as methodological paradigm,’ Journal of Art Historiography (Number 9, September, 2013), p. 1–25.
iv Maurice Merleau-Ponty, The Visible and the Invisible (Chicago: Northwestern University Press, 1969), p. 147