Potential Objection

—Samantha Sterling

"Potential Objection"
Alma Hesse and Istvan Ferencz


Identity is shaped in part by external forces beyond our control, creating individuals who are wholly unique, but undeniably interchangeable. Our need for human interaction is a constant, yet we are continuously reminded of our solitary positions in this world. Who we aim to be and what we reveal remain in conflict.

Two series of narrative paintings by Istvan Ferencz present complementary reflections on the notion of solitude and the subtle poetry of life. In the first, seemingly dreary landscapes are paired with a palette of pale pastels that highlights individual figures commencing mundane activities. Executed in oil and charcoal their surfaces are graced with a hazy quality that evokes a quiet reverie. Nearly all the figures in Ferencz’s paintings present their backs to the viewer. These individuals are as uninviting as the walls and barren landscapes that surround them, though it is impossible to resist some small measure of comprehension of their distant world. Expansion of Consciousness (2008) portrays two men at work whose thoughts appear to be elsewhere as they carry out their tertiary task. They seem barely human, as faceless, nameless voids moving mechanically through a post-apocalyptic industrial wasteland, though there remains a peculiar glimmer of hope in their resilience. Confronting the viewer with these bleak encounters Ferencz draws into question the particulars of the everyday and expounds on the intricacies of the human condition.

Alter egos, body-doubles, doppelgängers, aliases, and, pseudonyms abound in life and fiction. Unscrupulous desires are masked in a society that dances carefully around taboos, concealing certain aspects of our needs behind the drudgery of everyday life. Sexuality is that which is most carefully guarded, cloaked behind layers of denial and fear. It is critical to our survival, though it is the most unabashedly veiled aspect of being human. It is only away from society’s roving eye that these masks are discarded and our desires fulfilled.

The Pop-inspired colors of Alma Hesse’s large-scale paintings present a view behind closed doors, a place where a priest can wear lingerie and a woman a strap-on dildo. Some of these scenarios are seemingly more shocking than others, though it is clear that Hesse wants her viewer to peer fragmented glimpses of each body through a voyeuristic scope. The texture achieved through Hesse’s heavy paint application and mottled skin tones gives her paintings a tangible, almost sculptural quality and brings her figures to life. Positioned in colored, timeless landscapes, the specific actions of each individual figure are underscored. In Advertisement (2008) however, she uses abstraction to edit her figures, raising questions about the body’s prominent role in sexualized advertising campaigns. Reminiscent of the kind of posters most often defaced in subway stations, three stacked figures fill the canvas and are divided by bold splotches of thick paint. Privileging particular aspects of the body and giving her figures distant almost otherworldly expressions, Hesse only shows segments of each narrative. Like Ferencz’s paintings, her figures appear empty, completely absent of emotion, though clearly engaging in pleasurable activities. It is this paradox that gives them their strength and keeps the viewer wanting more. Far more than a simple parade of sexual intrigue, Hesse’s paintings explore myriad aspects of the complicated human psyche.

Our world is one filled with xenophobia. Race, class, religion, gender, and sexual preference are the ideas we use to describe ourselves, but they provide just a shell. We are constantly re-inventing who we think we are, while we imagine what those around us might be. Our solitude is our greatest strength and our most painful flaw since solidarity cannot be experienced alone.

In Ferencz’s second series, he presents stark painted flowers on treated felt. The surface of the felt gives these paintings a sensuous, almost ethereal quality, yet it is clear that once again Ferencz hopes to present more than is immediately apparent. Harmlessly held captive in pots, buckets, and pails these eloquent flowers can be read as substitutes for the body. With strong lines and careful shading each plant is unique, but overwhelmingly related to the others. As in his series of landscapes, Ferencz makes the familiar almost unknown infusing it with significance and confounding the viewer with unanswerable questions. Fragments of meaning radiate from the delicate details of the flowers illustrated in his paintings and are a reminder not only of the fragility and fleeting existence of humanity, but also the possibility of exceeding these limitations.

There is much that could potentially be objected to in this exhibition, most obviously its ambiguous nature, but ultimately this endeavor enables the viewer to make a case for paintings that are free from the confines of a pre-existing context. It should be acknowledged that the artists are presenting their work here through constructed identities. This may or may not have a bearing on the understanding of the content of their work. Read through the lens of a twenty-first century perspective, it is possible to see the work of Istvan Ferencz and Alma Hesse as timeless in the grand themes of their paintings. It is a dual account, one that is about the narrative of their work and the other the fiction of their own making. Who they are as individuals is by all means critical to the reception of their work, but by donning hypothetical masks they allow multiple interpretations to emerge that might otherwise have been overshadowed by superfluous details of their personal histories. Instead, they gracefully stand together in quiet harmony.

Samantha Sterling is an arts practitioner who works in a cultural institution in New York. She has organized exhibitions with a number of mid-career and emerging artists. This is the first time she has written under a nom de plume.