Vanessa Thill: Balsam
May 31 - August 2, 2020 at DELI
The young sculptor Vanessa Thill is showing a group of “portals,” door-shaped spaces in which blackened tree branches frame a resin-coated, human-size length of paper. The paper, treated with a variety of mixed media, is slightly translucent, in keeping with the artist’s notion that the works are meant to function as entryways into another, more spiritual world (Thill invokes the Zohar, a mystical treatise that belongs to the Kabbalah, as support for her intentions). Nearly an installation in their circular arrangement in the gallery space, the portrayals establish, in an industrial part of Williamsburg, a place of sanctity, in which the spiritual world beyond ours comes closer into our grasp. The aura of these portals is strong enough that one need not be a believer to feel the impress of a mystical passage about to begin. One can only wonder about what lies beyond these doors of perception; the artist is not going so far as to visually establish the site of wonder that exists beyond our recognition. But she is making sure that her work introduces to that possibility
Thus, Thill’s audience senses that the artist herself is a strong adherent of a vision that cannot be held or examined, existing within the mind’s eye, in ways that expand vision. In this kind of thinking, every object or perception in the world as we know it stands for something else, something spiritual that is available only in an intuitive sense. Yet the portals are real enough, and their rough manufacture, determined by natural materials, may be read as an introduction to the uncanny--not in a paganistic sense or a weirdly supernatural one, but as in improvised devotion stemming from established mystical texts and, perhaps, recognizing the value of nature. It is remarkable that this kind of commitment on the artist’s part is available in a gallery on a nondescript urban street two blocks from the subway. The portals consequently become proof that their light brown, translucent exterior, the result of the paper’s having been bathed in resin, acts as a threshold into a place of absolute regard--even if New York’s gritty reality is just a step away. It has been said that the adept should not study the Kabbalah before he or she is thirty, and Thill was born in 1991, so that she herself is on the threshold of the age when spiritual understanding first becomes available.
When you see a show like this, in the midst of an unorganized, rundown urban neighborhood in Brooklyn, it becomes clear that devotional intuition is not going away, even in places one would not expect it to last. The tree limbs framing the resin-coated paper feel improvised and ephemeral, while the paper itself, ragged and dark and emitting streaks of light, is the artistic equivalent of the urban detritus that fills the gutters and covers the pavement of the street just outside the gallery.
Why must enlightenment take place only in the beautiful countryside, where the landscape may well become both a backdrop for and actual evidence of a hidden world, but which is now slowly being destroyed and is considered a better place than city life for developing spiritual potential?
Many of our metaphors originate in the natural world, but if we think of a visionary artist and poet such as Blake, we remember that all his life was spent in London, in the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, when the cities were beginning to be taken over by satanic mills. Now the urban backdrop, given its concentration of the poor and its rambling, random framing of industrial blight, may well be a preferred site for the kind of thinking Thill is illustrating in her work (we know from press notes that she is involved in activities that oppose gentrification in neighborhoods like the Lower East Side and Chinatown).
It is clear enough that the real world not only intrudes into the gallery space, but also generates the kind of perception that resulted in the portals’ construction. Realism, because of the damages done to it by economic development, deserves a place in which its scars become vehicles for inner renewal. Yet it forms the backdrop against which visionary intentions are realized, at least in the case of Thill’s art. In addition to the “portrals,” viewers find the floor piece named “Arise (Underfoot)” (2020), a tangled web of knotted cotton rope dyed a copper brown with rock powders. About life-size in its dimensions, the piece is meant to be trod upon, so as to establish an intermediary layer between the foot and the hard, concrete floor. As the viewer steps on the work of art, he or she senses not so much an interference with the floor as an alternative to the realism of its density--which is, more or less, the purpose of the portals, meant to provide an experience other than the world we know. “Arise (Underfoot”) transforms the physical harshness of urban flooring into something less relentlessly unforgiving. Its web-like construction, as it yielded to the weight of the body, suggests natural processes rather than industrial ones. As such, it intimates the truth that civic constructions, even entities as large as New York City, occur within a natural world encompassing them
A lot of our experience with Thill’s art is based upon intuitive belief--that is the core of thought behind the portals and the floor piece. We can wonder whether the rawness of the art is not only a current formal sensibility--I have seen several young sculptors working with an Arte Povera awareness of materials--but also a choice in favor of a rough-hewn awareness, which exists as an example of the raw and not the cooked. In a culture like ours, in which historical awareness has been replaced by several generations of exploratory, non-hierarchical art, less is more. (In poetry, for example, which is very close to sculpture in intent, often the perception is developed in light of oppositions that are social, political, philosophical, and esthetic.) While Thill is not openly declaring war on convention, her choice of poor materials, along with her wish to provide an otherworldly transition to a place without doubt, places her in a position of commitment. One recognizes that the commitment is genuine, given that the show originates a space outside a space--that is, a site of uncontested meaning. Thus, the exhibition proves that young artists still pursue experience beyond the pale of convention, via a language of impoverished fabrics (and other stuffs), in the hopes of shaping new insights to fit the time.
-Jonathan Goodman, New York, June, 2020