The Discomfort in Comfort: Vulnerability in Elizabeth Jaeger’s New Portraits

Installation view of Elizabeth Jaeger’s Hours at Jack Hanley Gallery, 2019 (Courtesy of the artist and Jack Hanley Gallery)

It was, at first, slightly challenging to place artist Elizabeth Jaeger’s new show Hours at Jack Hanley Gallery into the context of her larger body of work. Jaeger’s work, consisting of primarily sculpture and ceramics (with some video pieces here and there), has taken some turns since she came onto the scene. When dealing with the human figure specifically, she has rendered powerfully erotic, but minimally adorned female bodies. Those early works, such as the reclined blonde female ceramic figure Platinum Musing (2011), are traditionally sexy, but almost awkwardly posed. Later works, however, place Jaeger’s work into the lineage of the uncanny as described by philosopher and literary critic Julia Kristeva in her seminal 1980 essay “The Powers of Horror.” Richard (Dead) (2015), for example, presents a male figure, shattered and destroyed, a body at the mercy of its own fragility. Jaeger has also sculpted birds, abstract objects and her self, but there always seems to be a focus on the body that elicits notions of eroticism, as well as a pervasive sense of unease.

And knowing all that, Jaeger’s recent show feels, objectively, like a departure. A series of 50 monochromatic portraits dyed onto silk, the artworks on display aren’t as obviously transgressive as her past sculptural works. Certainly minimally staged portraits of fully clothed subjects are less immediately visually jarring than sculptures of nude women in contorted poses. These portraits are imbued with a haunting quality, to be sure (the works are assembled in a way that allows them to flutter like drapes via the wind generated by human motion, creating a satisfyingly ghostly effect). But, they don’t frame the body with the same anxiety and sexuality that she has in her past sculptural works (not to mention her provocative recently released book Denude, in which the artist sourced multiple art historical paintings of reclining nudes and cropped the subjects’ bodies to focus just on the torsos).

Installation view of Elizabeth Jaeger’s Hours at Jack Hanley Gallery, 2019 (Courtesy of the artist and Jack Hanley Gallery)

When presented with an aesthetic challenge like this, there’s a hackneyed critical tendency to dig into biographical tidbits from the artist’s history. And, unfortunately for you, fair reader, that is a tendency that I am as of right now going to indulge. Jaeger’s initial forays into the art world were in the form of performances. Performance art, when successful, forces the viewer into a state of hyper self-sensitivity. A strong performance can make the viewer more aware of being inside a body, inside a brain, and inside a space. The best performance art presents you with something in your exterior world to force you into your interior world.

Jaeger’s sculptures engage the viewer similarly as performance art. Her figures’ physical gestures seem both familiar and otherworldly, and leave the viewer feeling vulnerable. The uncannily vulnerable state elicited within the viewer is what unites Jaeger’s work, whether the aesthetic of the sculptures is more accurately labeled as erotic (as in Platinum Musing), grotesque (as in Richard (Dead)), oblique and/or abstract (as in the animals, or the polygonal torso structures that the artist showed in 2017), or all of the above (as in the truly startling Serving Vessels from 2013).

Installation view of Elizabeth Jaeger’s Hours at Jack Hanley Gallery, 2019 (Courtesy of the artist and Jack Hanley Gallery)

If Jaeger’s sculptures sought to send the viewer into a similar state of self-awareness as do works of great performance art, these portraits find the artist seeking to actual visually render that mental state onto the image. Jaeger didn’t have her subjects make any forced gestures or poses. She simply tried to render their forms as they were positioned and dressed in a way that felt most natural. She instructed her subjects to not pose as much as possible, and the resulting portraits are startlingly unadorned. Nevertheless, the works find the subjects seemingly trying to be comfortable, while still betraying physical gestures of discomfort. For example, in Dan, the artist Dan Herschlein is reclined and wearing what appears to be pajamas, but his wide-eyed expression, nevertheless, suggests him being slightly physically and emotionally perturbed.

One can imagine these portrait sessions being defined by a unique psychological exchange. The title of the show, Hours, literally refers to the amount of time required to sit for a portrait. Like great performance artists that actively incorporate an audience into their work, such as Clifford Owens, Jaeger is manipulating the circumstances, while still instructing the subject to act as if the circumstances are not being manipulated. The subject is told to act natural, but is still aware of his/her image being rendered, and passivity itself becomes an active engagement. Within that passivity, the subject is influenced to withdraw into his/herself, entering a state of contemplative angst. One of the subjects of the portraits, Maia, remarked on her portrait session sending her into a state of deep, self-awareness in the show’s press release:Sitting for a portrait can be quite adventurous. It requires the time, patience, and a stillness that goes against the usual day-to-day routine. I try to be as relaxed as possible. I start to think about parts of my body I usually don’t consider — my ears, my shins, my hairline. I start to feel sections of my body as I follow the artist’s eyes. I drift in and I drift out. My eyes dance around as I try to  stay focused. I think about how my clothes sit on the body.”

Installation view of Elizabeth Jaeger’s Hours at Jack Hanley Gallery, 2019 (Courtesy of the artist and Jack Hanley Gallery)

Whereas Jaeger’s sculptures created an environment in which the viewer would be forced to withdraw into their own psyche when exposed to the contrasting aesthetics of the objects (erotic/grotesque, beautiful/awkward, etc.), these portraits find Jaeger creating a psychological exchange, that of the artist and the subject, in which the subject is coaxed into a state of self-sensitivity that Jaeger, in turn, documents. In this way, the portraits are actually an evolution of the themes that Jaeger has been working with her entire career.

Jaeger’s art is one of monumental psychological density, and there are few artists working today that create work that can elicit such an emotional response (while also generating abundant theoretical discourse). In her 1969 essay “The Aesthetics of Silence,” Susan Sontag argued that modern art had taken over the role that mysticism and spirituality once occupied in human life. The ritualistic nature of performance art certainly reinforces this philosophy. However clichéd, this philosophy is also relevant when applied to Jaeger’s work. Her earlier sculptural works were created to heighten a viewer’s sense of vulnerability, but in these portrait sessions, Jaeger constructs a uniquely uncomfortable situation that yields a vulnerability and actually creates a new work of art out of it. Vulnerability is at the heart of Jaeger’s work, and through vulnerability, we are able to open ourselves up the universe.

Elizabeth Jaeger’s Hours closed at Jack Hanley Gallery on February 10.

Adam Lehrer is an artist, photographer and writer. Lehrer’s work consists of manipulated photography, collages made of mostly Internet sourced appropriated images, and video loops. He has had solo shows at Spring Break Art Show, Governor’s Island Art Fair, and has been featured in group shows. Lehrer is also a culture writer, and his art, film and music criticism has been featured in Autre Magazine, The Quietus, Forbes, VICE, Bedford & Bowery, Bullett Media, i-D, SSENSE, and more.

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