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Beauty/Grief

By Whitney V. Hunter, Cohort ’13

Martha Graham in Lamentation, No. 6

Martha Graham in Lamentation, No. 6

It might be a common idea within the dance world that the works of Martha Graham have been trumped by an overall opinion that her attention to form is outdated and old fashioned. What perhaps is missing in this judgment is the ultimate contribution of her complete message. Not in the works or technique alone does the depth of her involvement lie. Rather, as she has stated, her art is in many ways an effort to understand the “inner landscape” of humanity.

Alfredo Jaar also understands and attempts to share “inner landscapes” with the world in his first solo show in New York City since 2009, Shadows (Galerie Lelong, Feb. 14 - Mar. 28). Here he explores, through the original photographic images of Dutch photojournalist Koen Wessing taken in 1978, the experience of grief. The various images, presented very simply as contact sheet exposures on light boxes, bring to the fore an expression that presents the conflicting idea of beauty within the devastation of grief.

Alfredo Jaar/ Koen Wessing, Shadows

Alfredo Jaar/ Koen Wessing, Shadows

One work in particular “burns” this image into the mind’s eye through the physiological effect of persistence of vision. Each viewer has a different experience, depending on when the time-based progression is encountered. The work progresses from a large-scale image of two young women in a Nicaraguan terrain, sobbing and grieving. The bodies and arms are uplifted with grief-stricken tension. Suddenly, that background fades away, leaving only the cutouts of the women. Then the women’s images fade to a white silhouette. From there, the light’s intensity grows to a blinding level, and then total blackout. Jaar states that this single iconic image, which the exhibition revolves around, is the “strongest expression of grief” that he has ever seen.

The effect of this artwork physiologically does what the other fragmented images do psychologically, and what kinesthetically Graham’s work does - forces the viewer to complete the narrative. I am captivated by the work of both artists. As I try to understand if the affect is substantial, the time in which the work is created is irrelevant. Too bad these artists, to my knowledge, never met.