Apr 06, 2023

Barry Schwabsky on Josephine Halvorson

Josephine Halvorson, Roadside Memorial, 2021, acrylic on canvas, 22 × 24".

Just a handful of the fourteen paintings in Josephine Halvorson's "Unforgotten" called on trompe l’oeil conventions. But with the show following hard on the heels of the controversial "Cubism and the Trompe l’Oeil Tradition" at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, it was hard to avoid focusing on the connection. Halvorson has long depicted vertically oriented tableaux parallel to the picture plane (corkboards or just wooden walls) with pinned-up receipts, sketches, letters, and flyers, as in New England Blacksmiths, 2021, or Important Notice, 2023, both of which were on view here. Her intention is neither to deceive the viewer nor even to just create an impressively mimetic image, as she provides neither the crisp and seamless execution we’d associate with trompe l’oeil, nor its tactile rendering of surfaces and minimal volumetric manifestations, such as the folds in a sheet of paper. Halvorson's relatively loose and painterly facture puts her art at a distance from any illusionism, as does the transparent, bodiless character of her acrylic gouache medium.

While her paintings are based on observation, she is less interested in realism than in fiction. The arrangement of items within the frame does not construct a determinate narrative that the viewer is meant to tease out; it raises questions. Why would a copy of the winter 2000 issue of New England Blacksmiths, the newsletter of a rather recondite membership organization, be pinned up next to a handwritten note dated April 25, 1984, thanking one John "for the work done in Truro"? The latter might have had to do with blacksmithing, but the spread of dates suggests these items are unlikely to have been found together. Although the exhibition's online catalogue says Halvorson's works "emerge from chance or repeated encounters with objects the artist comes across," in this case it's hard not to imagine a more deliberate staging. A little research reveals that Halvorson's father was named John, and that he was a metalworker who died of Covid-19 in 2020. But while the work must be a memorial, it hardly wears its heart on its sleeve, and the reason these items have been chosen to commemorate him remains tacit.

What's true of a single painting held for the exhibition as an ensemble. Each piece felt, in its close attention to a single object or situation, quite self-contained, and the subjects were as varied as their plainspoken titles would indicate: Buried Barrel, 2022; Roadside Memorial, 2021; Station Meter, 2023, and so on. Together, they seemed to add up to a portrait of a place. But is that place somewhere on the map or in the mind? The painter does not make it her business to supply precise coordinates, and the paucity of framing context is entirely to the point. Facts are found, but truth is constructed. The largest and most impressive work on view here was Peony, 2022, a grid of twenty-five thirteen-by-sixteen-inch panels depicting a flowering bush from various angles . . . or is it several bushes mashed against one another? One can neither quite put the puzzle together nor take it apart. The formal unity of the composition—overcoming the collage-like cuts from panel to panel—can't be mistaken for a unity of referent.

Dismissed by many as "nothing more than a dazzling performance of virtuosity," trompe l’oeil was a product of the Baroque era, when the relation between illusion and being had theological weight. "The Baroque good," as Yves Bonnefoy reminds us, "is not the opposite of evil, but of doubt. It is even quite imperative that life be revealed as a dream—so that, in the collapse of false proofs, the necessity of grace may arise." But doubt, as we know better than ever today, is our only approach to truth. Halvorson has described trompe l’oeil as "a helpful analogy" for the many ways "painting can define itself: as surface, as illusion, as daily life, as the wall." But she knows those various definitions may not be congruent. And with no grace on offer, her paintings remind us that the transition from sense perception to knowledge can be baffling.

— Barry Schwabsky