The mystery of death speaks to us in myriad ways. It can be horrific – bloody viscera at our fingertips; it can be remote – removed to touchscreens and newspaper clippings; and it can be an affect of memory – the cold glance of someone else’s death – a corporeal loss close enough to graze your psyche. This last way – the psychological death, the psychic death – is plumbed within the exhibit on view now at the University at Buffalo’s Anderson Gallery in BRACHA : Pietà – Eurydice – Medusa; the first comprehensive, solo museum exhibit of the artwork of Israeli-born artist and psychoanalyst Bracha Lichtenberg Ettinger within the United States. The work therein was produced between 1984 and 2018, and includes a variety of oil paintings, drawings, notebooks, and three video works.
Plumbing the archives of her own ties to trauma – including the loss of family during the Holocaust, and the artist’s own leading role in attempting to rescue the survivors of a shipwreck – Ettinger’s oeuvre is stained with the pain of memory. The most corporeally articulate work of the exhibit is a pair of niches showcasing a selection of the artist’s work from the period of 1984 – 1993, in these holdings Ettinger deploys photographic pigment and ashes to summon forth spectral figures and echoes of bodies lost. Loosely pinned to the wall, it becomes the task of the viewer to confront these spirits made manifest on paper, and to question them as one would divine a planchette sliding across Ouija board.
Dominating the exhibition are painted works by Ettinger; on both canvas and paper, these surfaces are a departure from the xerographic work focusing on the liminality of bodies. This work, instead, becomes focused upon the liminality of the surface of a work of art – in short, how far can the artist push and probe into a surface to simultaneously explore it and flood it. Her works on paper bloom like postmortem bruises, bursting from beneath skeins of paper and stacks of notebooks, and to see them arrayed within vitrines and frames brings to mind the inner workings of a Gross Anatomy lab or a morgue where bodies lay in repose before the soft gaze of infinity.
Ettinger is best known an an artist for her paintings. Like the works on paper, they become surfaces under assault; soft targets which speak to the inevitable Holocaust of memory, while evoking very real bodily trauma. This abstraction of trauma – as all of Ettinger’s art works are ultimately, literally abstract – reads as phantasmagorically Gorky-esque containing soft, pulsating coronas of flesh and blood. The painted works also bring to mind what Monet was trying to capture in his later years riding out World War I in the semi-remote Giverny; these paintings shimmer and allow the eye to glide across their surfaces. Their painted nature suggests both surface and depth, but there is no visual legibility to cling to within Ettinger’s works; no haystacks coated in hoarfrost, no purloined impressions of sunlight, only stagnant waters choked with ghosts.
While jarring, I found myself frozen before them as if caught by Ettinger’s titular Medusa and could not look away.
Where Ettinger’s work falls short, however, is within her video pieces toward the end of the installation. After so much abstraction and seeking to call forth ancestors and nameless victims alike, the videos are unnerving in how visually legible they are. These pieces chart the transit of an entire life – from conception to death – which becomes just a touch too literal following the “matrixal dispersion” of her two-dimensional surfaces. While jarring, I found myself frozen before them as if caught by Ettinger’s titular Medusa and could not look away; perhaps in that regard they are as successful as the rest of her presented oeuvre.
BRACHA : Pietà – Eurydice – Medusa is on view now through July 29, 2018. A future publication focused on the works in the exhibition with contributions by Dr. Amelia Jones and Dr. Tina Kinsella is forthcoming. For more information, please visit ubartgalleries.buffalo.edu