Michelle Carla Handel / Cole M. James: I DO NOT DENY THEM MY ESSENCE

Michelle Carla Handel

Handel's sculptural works are engaged in a grand theater of anthropomorphic gestures. One might even say that her works are caught up in a series of dialectic relations that alternate between the lumpen and docile, and the active and erect. Often dominated by fleshly tones and textures, her organic forms are known to elicit a wide range of bodily responses, from pleasure to discomfort, and even a certain sense of playful innocence. But what belies their weighty corporeality is a certain psycho-sexual charge that depends not so much on non-referential means as it does on the articulation of pre-symbolic memes, i.e., those types of forms which are not easily identified within the confines of language but which populate our affective capacities for understanding nonetheless. As such, the types of partial objects that make up Handel's growing oeuvre often participate with notions of becoming, mutation and entropy. Yet if we were to stake a claim on indentifying a type of language that would be complementary to her work, it would have to be something like the pleasures accorded to dialogic indetermination. By creating forms that have an enigmatic status, her works simultaneously invite and defy qualitative associations, acting like something of three-dimensional Rorschach test.

But for all their earthen and naturalist qualities, Handel's forms have not abstained from the use of color. When a chromatic flare appears in her work it often serves to highlight the tension between the natural and the artificial, the biological and the cultural, or material reality and its simulation. In this regard, Handel isn't shy about letting you know her works are informed by a interest in psychology and the kinds of supernormal stimuli that are regularly exploited by the culture industry, such as our sweet-tooth, our sexual urges, and the natural functions of desire. Even more important however, are the many ways that these notions connect with something that subsists beneath our experience of exteriority — something which isn't properly unconscious, but which isn't altogether different from the emotive capacity of our organs. This is, perhaps, why many of her sculptures could be mistaken for organs without bodies, or organs that are bodies unto themselves.

In this regard, Handel's sculptures could be placed in opposition to Deleuze's critique of Freudian psychology. One might even argue that her forms return us to an innate awareness of the 'other' site of consciousness — a kind of inner space who's inexplicable effects collude in the production of our outward emotions. If you've ever experienced real organ pain, even on a minor level, then you know it has little to do with the function of repression or signification, but moves far beneath such registers, having no less a profound effect on our senses and our emotional well-being. In this way, Handel's truncated forms also resist a Lacanian interpretation by delving into the space where symbolic identifications are first acquired. They are, for lack of a better word, something like 'gestational figures' that demarcate an originary lack of identifactory means. Furthermore, this lack of ascription is directly related to the trauma of imposing signification on any form whatsoever during early development.

If we take this interpretation to its natural endpoint, then Handel's sculptures seem to stand the Freudian-Lacanian nexus of interpretation on its head by giving us a world of forms that rely on a deeper resonance between the inner space of material interaction and the exterior space of perception, such that no form is ever truly reducible to its 'other' — be it linguistic, material, representational, abstract, etc. From the same vantage point, it's also worth mentioning that no form is ever truly free of such systems of codified understanding either. But this split between physiological and logic interlocution is exactly what Handel's works seem to problematize. Much like the paradoxes that adhere to the philosophy of mind, where subjectivity is irreducible to its biochemical processes, Handel's sculptures return us to a philosophy of the body, such that we are not just our innards or our emotions, but an interaction that transverses the space between abstract materiality and the feelings it engenders.

In other words, her works fall beyond the trinity of Freud-Lacan-Deleuze (Oedipus, revisionary Freudianism, and Anti-Oedipus). As such, they create a demand for a new type of interpretation, one that is perhaps a bit closer to the works of Jenet and Pigeat. More to the point however, they reflect the two greatest insights of contemporary brain science: (1) that physical and emotional states are hardwired in the same part of the brain, and (2) that most of what determines subjectivity takes place in early childhood development between the ages of one and three. Following such insights, Handel's works seem to jack directly into a pre-symbolic matrix of meaning that aims to reveal something about our most intimate emotive responses — responses that even we resist knowing. But in what does this consist, or how do such feelings subsist beneath the thin vernier of language? Handel's organ-like sculptures point to the fact that pre-Oedipal relations constitute the very conditions by which we will be given over to the experience a symbolic world, not to mention that we are condemned to be given over to worldly signs through fragments that constantly force us to renegotiate our symbolic assignments.  

Or, to put it somewhat differently, the polymorphous quality of her forms point to the denatured space of subjective assignment, which is to say, to the demand of culture to make things signify vis-a-vis occultation. And yet, Handel's use of an informal or abstract aesthetic resists this urge by highlighting a space of contingency that is always already implicit in the making and unmaking of meaning — or the formalization and naturalization of signification as-such. In this way, Handel's works ask us to engage with a world that is one step removed from either cognition or signification. In fact, they point toward a wholly different entre into understanding inter-subjective relations and different types of becomings. They do this by operating under the sign of affective perception rather than linguistic or material assignment, and they remind us that the contemporary moment is no less circumscribed by the metaphysical problems of attribution than by our own innermost feelings, which might ultimately prove to be one and the same thing.

Bio: Michelle Carla Handel was born in Las Vegas, Nevada and raised in Houston, Texas. She received an MFA in Fine Art from Claremont Graduate University in 2011. Recent Los Angeles exhibitions include a group show, ‘Constructing Fantasy’, at the the Beacon Arts Building; ‘Hungry Me, Tender You’, a two-person show with Josh Atlas at RAID Projects; inclusion in BOOM, GLAMFA, and Co/Lab in 2011; solo show ‘Strange Skin’ at WEEKEND; and two-person show with Eve Wood at Garboushian Gallery. She also curated 'Odd Ghosts and Unlikely Dancers', a two-person show featuring works by Phyllis Green and Bessie Kunath on exhibit at WEEKEND Gallery through September 2012. Currently her large scale sculpture, ‘Big Yearn, Let Down’, is on display at the Torrance Art Museum. 


Cole M. James

The paintings of James are stringent and sensual, abstract but not entirely non-representational, and quite political while still being irreducible to the political dimension. So how are we to account for such paradoxes? First, her paintings are constructed in one go. They are not reworked, worked over, or struggled through. In this regard, they demand of the producer absolute virtuosity and commitment, as well as a prolonged stage of contemplative planning and numerous studies. But James's rigorous aesthetic is itself, composed of lush materials of every kind that glitter and dance across the surface of her canvases, which is to say, they are as stringent as they are sensual — almost an absolutist model of abstract expressionism.

Second, James's paintings are undeniably abstract, but her selection of forms often points back toward naturalistic referents, such as tree branches, figures, fruits and the like. More importantly however, they often display the structure of a loose knit anthropomorphic mobile, which supports many different regimes of material identification: craft and kitsch, figure and ground, nature and artifice. With just a glance at James's work, we are quickly reminded that early twentieth century abstraction often consisted of pictures that had been abstracted from nature, or that pointed back to the feeling of a naturalist referent. Even though James's paintings work against this type of pseudo-naturalism, they still engage with the same problematic by pointing to the artificiality of such constructs, both at the level of materiality and subjective 'expression'. In this way, one can say that her works are abstract without being non-representational, or rather, that they problematize the presuppositions that attend such distinctions in the first place.

Third, her works are political without overtly announcing themselves as-such. In this regard, they fall well within the idiom of abstract expressionism while still being anti-reductionist, anti-essentialist, anti-'all-over', anti-truth to materials, and even anti-expressionist in the sense of avoiding any allusion to Jungian archetypes or existential angst. We might even say that James's paintings present us with a content that is irreducible to the individual or a given program, but which is nonetheless circumscribed by concerns about how identity is constructed through painting and its various modes of presentation. This is what makes her work political in a way that exceeds the traditional category of 'political' or 'activist' art. Her paintings are more about the epistemological conditions of reception than ontological arguments related to presence, authorship or fixed meanings.

Such a reading only provides us with some initial insights James's art practice. A more intimate relationship with her works reveals a highly selective use of materials and a diverse ecology of references. In James's imagery, colors are treated by name, and there is a meticulous cataloging of every type of product that goes into each piece. More often than not, her color choices tend to consist of those cast off or discounted colors that inspire the feeling of chromatic dissonance or an aesthetics of the disabused, and even of outright rejection. Even more important are the small moments in her compositions when the natural and the synthetic find themselves abutted, producing a relation where one texture or color is implicated in the production or identity of another. In fact, one might even say that her overall project is that of creating a self-othering or hyper-differentiating modernism.

In such an oeuvre we are confronted with an allegorical model of abstraction that relies on the politics of the démodé in standing over and against the bias's associated with the mythos of heroic painting. In fact, we might say that James work could serve as a model of subversion that operates within a strictly demarcated field of interventions, creating a space that relies on valorizing the counter-memories of a tradition that is perpetually forced to the fringes of established taste and cannonization. In this regard, her use of disparate patterns, prefab decorations and a variety of framing devices point toward abstraction's forbidden pleasures, and in so doing, her paintings ask us to examine how we think about the production of aesthetic difference.

Or, one could go a step further here and propose that her works aim to deterritorialize aesthetic experience by providing a space of contradiction that upends the dialectic oppositions proposed by the history of abstract painting and its attending structures of valuation, be they class based, gender biased, institutionally sanctioned or otherwise normatively constructed. From such a perspective, James's art can be seen as resisting the dominant narratives of abstract painting by repurposing the affective qualities of perception, and in so doing, her work allows for a new understanding of how identity functions within the field of image production.

Bio: Cole studied Philosophy and Fine Art at Cal State San Bernardino before attending Claremont Graduate University where she received a MFA in Painting & Installation. She has received the LBGT Graduate Fellowship, Outstanding Minority Graduate Fellowship,  Alfred B. Friedman Grant, Walker Parker Artist Fellowship, Mignon Schweitzer Award, and the Cal State Innovations in Painting Award.  Some of her most recent exhibitions include a solo show at the Robert V Fullerton Museum and as well as several group shows in Los Angeles, New York & Seoul Korea.

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