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PHILIP GERSTEIN_The Name of the Wind, 2018-Lichtundfire_2023.jpg

Totem and Taboo

PHILIP GERSTEIN, The Name of the Wind, 2018, Oil stick, acrylic, and mixed media on wood panel, 20 x 30 in.  Courtesy Lichtundfire, © Philip Gerstein

Henry Biber, Edward M. Giordano Jr., Philip Gerstein, Anki King, Sarah Peterson and Francesca Schwartz  

Lichtundfire curated by Priska Juschka

by Stephen Gambello, May 3, 2023

Inspired by Sigmund Freud’s foundational work Totem and Taboo, this exhibition delves into the two extremes of society:  the revered and the reviled. What are the sources of these two extremes? These two verbs forms are the consequence of the noun forms totem and taboo. The totem is revered, whereas the taboo is reviled;  is there a relationship between what is fundamentally good and what is fundamentally bad? We have been engrained by Judeo-Christian society to view morality through these two extremes. However, there cannot be one without the other.  As a matter of fact, human consciousness itself is informed by a balance and imbalance of the animalistic impulse. This struggle to maintain the balance and imbalance has necessitated the creation of, and the resultant complexity, of the totem; and out of its dogmatic ritualistic laws was born the taboo.

The cross shape is Christianity's totem. Its emulation of a figure with arms outstretched is both comforting to some and disturbing to others. It’s original purpose was to execute (specifically crucify) criminals. It is a harbinger of violence, suffering and death; in its day it was a symbol of the taboo. Yet that specific analogy to evil-doing is what supports the divine ascent to the perceived, believed inherent goodness of the Christ figure. He is propped up by criminality’s punitive vessel (taboo symbol), the cross. The fire and hate behind a crucifixion are what kindles the glow of the sacrosanct.

Edward M. Giordano Jr. and Sarah Peterson have a sort of complementary symbology occurring.  Giordano’s sculptures “Acrobat" and "Wethervane” both harken to the familiar aforementioned crucifix shape. Sarah Peterson's works represent the macroscopic view of cell tissue as seen through the microscope, and in this case, the work “ACUITY” also resembles outstretched arms, outstretched arms and legs of a body, emulating the constitutional spirit of crucifixion. Suffering and pain is manifest in the three-dimensional sculptures and two dimensional painting. The terrestrial and the microscopic know(s) no relief from pain.  It is through pain that the human may learn wisdom or self-destruction, whether it be an actual human organism as manifest by Giordano, or a microscopic organism, as manifest by Peterson. Here, taboos exist on all levels of existence.

EDWARD M. GIORDANO Jr., Whethervane, 2014 , Plaster, Wood, Metal, String, Paint, Red Color Paint, 85 (37 t and 48 b) x 20 x 3 in. , Courtesy Lichtundfire, © Edward M. Giordano Jr.

FRANCESCA SCHWARTZ, Mother’s Earth, 2023, Burlap, dry pigment, ink, paper towel, dye, string, 90 x 75 in Courtesy Lichtundfire, © Francesca Schwartz

Francesca Schwartz’s “Bone Trance XVI”, by virtue of its name, entrances not us, but rather entrances the bones themselves into a reverent configuration that, along with the thin wires’ occupation between the base of the bones, renders it into a ladder (Jacob’s ladder) aspiring to a totemic grace.

Philip Gerstein's “The Name of The Wind”, conveys a sense of despair and brittle, tactile desperation. Light and dark objects/elements, and subtle, chromatically different objects/elements are suspended in space, struggling for relevance, survival, avoiding consumption into the depths of neutralized (green) brown infinity. These objects/elements serve as taboos to the viability of being. 


With Anki King’s “Bend”, the prostate figure almost loses its recognizability and instead becomes a living tabernacle, having offered its very body for sacrifice. Indeed, this body looks like a charred cadaver, the result of a ritual fire sacrifice. The totem of life sacrifice by burning is in itself a warning-taboo. This figure’s position prognosticates that which we return to is whence we came:  ashes, dust.  This is an existential warning if there ever was one.

Francesca Schwartz's “Mother’s Earth", not Mother Earth, is seemingly configured as a theatrical stage presentation of the depths of raw, vile injustice that the universal mother is subject to. The stage itself has been defiled by the remains of what one might see as an exaggeratedly colored urination stain. The nurturing essence of the mother is ultimately desecrated and defiled by the father – for he pisses on her, the woman, the mother. This may be interpreted as a reflection of the Earth that the mother has historically lived upon; that is, the Mother’s Earth dwells tragically in the shadow of patriarchy over the last 10,000 years: the false totem made by MEN, and its resultant false taboo of the woman’s emancipation.  

FRANCESCA SCHWARTZ, Bone Trance XVI, 2016, Bone, wire

9 x 5 x 21 in Courtesy Lichtundfire, © Francesca Schwartz

ANKI KING, Bend, 2022, Mixed media on paper, 25 1/2 x 37 1/2 in. (sheet size), Courtesy Lichtundfire, © Anki King

“The Barefooted Pilgrim Pursues the Tao”, and with this spirited title, the universal story of Taoism is brought to life: a concise, symbolic life. Henry Biber's narratively entitled painting is an enigmatic tour de force of space, mystery, and existential profundity. What we have here is a metaphysical map that details the aspiration to knowledge as a ripple through existence itself, as evidenced by the fold, or ripple, vertically traversing the top to bottom of the painting. The way of wisdom and acceptance is ineffable and cannot be reduced to a formula. The power behind this painting is the gentle, yet mesmerizing, inhabitation of very specific indicators:  the smear of orange, the two not so exactly sized lines, the mass that dominates the right side of the composition; all are gestating with potential:  potential of interpretation, of imagination, of renewal, of transcendence. The neutralized green hue of the picture is so murky, it can only inspire the viewer to reflect upon a sort of primal subconscious. There is a negotiation, mentally, from one shape to another, without a definitive answer; there is a feeling through the lesson, rather than a thinking of it. That is the way of the Tao. In dispensing with over-intellectualizing, the ego is nullified; the pilgrim, that is, the seeker(s) of enlightenment, is pure: bare foot pursuance is effectuated, but not captured.  Behold:  a transcendent, beyond totemic masterpiece is born. There are no taboos here.

We are, as a species, both refined and barbaric – even to this day. It is the artist that presents and celebrates, in the language and explosive manipulation of imagery, the balance (and imbalance) of the human spirit, the duality in this passion of living: the sacred (revered) ascension and the sacrilegious (reviled) descent. Some of the works mentioned inspire the Taboo, or the Totem, whereas some embrace both. However, the very backbone of the totem -- what gives its power, its relevance, its credibility -- is ultimately, the ever-influential support of the taboo. They are symbiotic, and in understanding this dichotomous symbiosis profoundly, in mindful acceptance, therein lies the ultimate potential balance and imbalance resolved:  sentience.


HENRY BIBER, The Barefooted Pilgrim Pursues the Tao, 2023, Pigment on Canvas, 36 x 34 in Courtesy Lichtundfire, © Henry Biber

TOTEM and TABOO, Installation View (detail), Lichtundfire, 2023

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