April 01st 2005 - Excerpt from COLLECT/RECOLLECT: APPROACHES IN CONTEMPORARY ART, by Mia Reinoso Genoni, art historian and guest lecturer of New York University in connection with show TOTEM MAGIC, including works of mixed media artist, Suzanna Biro at Art 6 Gallery, Richmond, VA during the month of October, 2004
"...So, let us begin with two pieces that seem to fit easily into the idea of a totem. ...and on the right Biro's Honored Guest. The artist has started with 'found' natural objects, creating from them - and with them - a totemic figure that hovers between life and death. The objects are assembled into figures, such as the Honored Guest or object-ideas, such as Spirit Altar. The individual elements themselves often toe the line between birth and death: in Spirit Altar we see the juxtaposition of bones that invoke death; a shell that invokes birth, rebirth, and the protection of life; and feathers that seem to suggest the flight in-between. Honored Guest is a particularly fascinating work, because the skull, feet, and some of the feathers that she uses came from a (rooster) that she repeatedly encountered in life. This (rooster) used to attack her, and eventually she killed and ate it. The resultant sculpture is of course partly apotropaic, functioning to ward off evil; however, by giving the work the title Honored Guest, Biro transcends this singular resonance, adding a layer of welcome and respect. The work exists in flux between life and death, antagonism and coexistence.
I think that when most of us hear the word "totem," in a general sense, we think primarily of objects such as these, objects that seem to be magical and/or spiritual, to carry mystical power. Part of the power of these works is inherited from the original identities of their individual physical and historical-cultural components-skull, mummy, Egypt, feather, bone, or even chicken nemesis - but they emerge as self- contained, wholly new entities. One way to look at this phenomenon is through my rubric of "collect/recollect": first the artist collects objects and/or references; then, second she assembles them anew, or "re-collects" them into a different creation; so that - thirdly - this act of re-collection involves a transformation that occurs through the actions of the artist, when the objects are called to - and through - the minds of the artist, in a phenomenon of recollection. In thinking about this dynamic in Biro's work, I wonder if the interaction between the concepts of the totem and of the totemic might not be able to provoke a further understanding of the processes and approaches of the artist. ...The artist here collects from the art world and the natural world, but she recollects the objects found into totemic works that contain and transform.
....Bone Collector, for Biro, nature is a shaman...that has the power to divine that which is hidden beneath the surface. Biro has stated that her work is about the "...essence of continuance," taking the objects found in nature and reinserting them into the cycle of creation through her art. ...she inserts herself into a pre-existing dialogue, but she eschews the specific social and cultural referents of other artists, choosing instead to engage predominantly with the natural world. The objects used by Biro are both directly natural, such as the skull, and natural with intervention, like the textiles. ...Biro deals with the art object in a general sense, as the object of craft - be it textile, bead or other.
The Bone Collector in some ways can be seen as a portrait of the artist. Biro states that: (her) mixed media sculptures come together as (she allows) her visual fantasies and stories to come alive." The Bone Collector, thus, both is created by her process, and is also, in fact, the figure which enacts her process, the collector. She is working via a process similar to that of Roy Fridge, whose l982 work Standing Shaman:Shrine/Oracle - Standing In, ... Texan artist Fridge is something of a cult figure there. He once said that he chose to live in Texas in order to: "...(live) the life of an 'amateur hermit.' I have used the shaman as persona - as psychopomp psychological voyeur into the unchartered darkness of unconcious, (to take) journeys (that are) sometimes actual, sometimes imagined, but always real."
Biro's process, however, is more totemic, as I have been defining it. She goes beyond the simple use of the shaman as persona; she actually builds the shaman from the materials that the shaman uses. Fridge's work, on the other hand, is recollection without the prior act of collection. Biro's work wanders through nature and through her interior mindscape, collecting objects and then recollecting them into works. In this light, My Nomandic Self, ...can also be seen as a portrait of the artist and her process. The elements of this piece wandered through the natural world and then through Biro's mind, emerging into the figure. She places seed pods in the eye socket of the skull. The seed pods function as eyes, but retain their identity as well, suggesting that eyes that search can generate new life. But as these are dried pods, this new life is inextricably linked with death - with the cycle of life. Thus by placing the pods within the sockets of the skull, the elements transform each other and are contained in the figure.
One of the mechanisms at work in Biro's art is a specific type of engagement with our ideas of culture. As I alluded to earlier, she does not refer to specific, named objects, like "Vermeer's Lacemaker," or "Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon," but rather she engages with general cultural tropes, such as "the Bone Collector" or "the Nomad." Her work is thus both easy to absorb and recognize, but suprisingly slippery to discuss. For me, looking at her objects brings to mind the words of Whitney Davis, an art historian who has worked extensively in between the fields of archaeology, art history, and psychoanalysis, to examine how lessons from one discipline can help scholars in another to shed some of their assumptions. In his l996 book Replications, Davis writes: "Cultural historians suppose that the social group they are studying already possesses a culture - a system the historian can take for granted in explicating replicatory histories supposedly proceeding from it." Davis is interested in trying to push human knowledge farther and farther back in time, asking, for instance, why art textbooks all start with the cave paintings of Lascaux, without ever asking what might have come before them. They are treated as our artistic origins, yet what were their origins? Davis asks this question to point out that it may at times be "unreliable...to assume the preexistence of 'culture'. I think in some ways Biro's work asks the same question. By replicating the cultural process itself, she is asking us to treat her work without the assumptuion of culture, that is to say, we cannot look to a culture or society to give us an answer or solution to her work.
"...her figure entitled Fertility and the one entitled Fertility Nest show the complexity of her work more clearly than her other pieces previously discussed. ...they demonstrate the power of her approach. Biro is calling upon the concept of "fertility," a concept that one might consider cultural but actually is more fundamental than any culture, because it is an inherent human concept. That is to say, while we might be accustomed to associating "fertility" with fertility dolls or charms, in an anthropological way, instead fertility is a concpet prior to the communal creation of culture. Thus Biro names this work Fertility, and not Fertility Figure; she invokes the concept, not the human use of it. Likewise, Fertility Nest is a non-human embodiment of the concept. She goes back to objects that human beings have consistently used as symbols for fertility: here the nest and the shell. But she uses them to give each other context - the appearance of a shell and a nest together cannot help but emphasize each other's role as the protector of life. They do so by virture of their juxtaposition; Biro gives us neither a cultural referent to aid us, for instance, an allusion to Sandro Botticelli's The Birth of Spring, dating to after l482, often referred to as the "Venus on the half-shell"; nor to a complete metaphoric figure, for instance, a bird emerging from the nest. Any specific context of - and for - culture is wholly absent. Instead, the nest and the shell act on each other, transforming each other into a doubled resonance of fertility, and this transformative act is contained in the object as a whole. Biro's work mimics the process of culture itself, of forming associations and building a shared lexicon of words and images, rather than relies upon a culture to give her work meaning.
Thus her work asks us not to "assume culture," to use Davis's phrase. I think it also helps us to understand why the concept of the "totemic process," as I have outlined it here tonight, can be so helpful. Davis warns that it is dangerous to allow an art work to be defined only in terms of relation to its cultures and histories. The concept of the totemic allows us to sidestep the danger as seen by Davis, because it is guided by the power of transformation itself. ...The concept of the "totemic" allows us, as spectators, to understand works that exist in the nexus of society and culture, while at the same time allows the works to stand in a space of their own, a space that they themselves create.
THE ABOVE REVIEW IS TAKEN FROM A LECTURE GIVEN BY MIA REINOSO GENONI ON OCTOBER 22, 2004 AS PART OF THE PINKNEY NEAR MEMORIAL LECTURES IN ART HISTORY PRESENTED AT THE ART 6 GALLERY IN RICHMOND, VIRGINIA.
,New Paltz, NY 12561
New Paltzl, NY 12561
Mia Reinoso Genoni