Andrea Dezsรถ: Haunted Ridgefield Main Street Sculpture Project October 31 to December 31, 2011 The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum
Andrea Dezsö: Haunted Ridgefield
“I didn’t know people still did that!” was the reaction of a student when New York-based visual artist and writer Andrea Dezsö said “I used pencil and paper” to explain her savvy technique when making covers for the literary journal McSweeney’s.1 The covers, which illustrated ten short works of original fiction, each presented the same pattern, painstakingly drawn by hand. “The pattern had filled-in areas that served as architectural elements which frame the illustrations and ‘holes’ that were cut out, behind which I placed images specific to each individual story.”2 She also resorted to incredibly time-consuming techniques for the holes that looked into each story: paper cutouts, shadow puppets, embroidery, egg tempera painting, watercolors, and so on. “Each technique is quite labor intensive and often it’s only clear upon completion whether the image works 3 or not. There is no ‘undo’ command when paper is cut...” Dezsö appreciates a hand-crafted, highly detailed aesthetic and the challenges it poses; in her mind this adds a visual intensity that unifies her practice. Yes, Andrea Dezsö still does that.
Airplane Book, 2003 Opening page; one-of-a-kind artist’s book about Dezsö’s migraine headaches Coptic binding by the artist 100% cotton Fabriano watercolor paper, mixed media 5 x 7 inches
Since 1992 she has also done one-of-a-kind pocket-sized books, which came about as a reaction to overdosing on computer work (as an exchange student at Middlesex University in London) and seeing too many large-scale artworks from which she felt disengaged.4 In fact, a grant for a residency at The Center for 5 Book Arts brought her from Hungary—where she had emigrated from Romania to study for her BFA and MFA—to New York in 1997. Her hand-painted books
McSweeney’s issue 23, 2007 Book jacket that opens up into a large poster featuring all the individual covers of the stories incorporated in the volume
then became her trademark: nuanced, intimate, introspective, seductive, and mysterious. In them, she developed a diaristic narrative of her own; for example, in Airplane Book (2003) she painted the types of pain (“yarmulke” or “shooting star”) caused by migraine headaches; Insectmen (2005) is a book about men who pretend to be insects; and Candyland (2005) is a painted journal of her artist’s residency in Wyoming. Finding it difficult to exhibit her books as artworks since only one page can be shown at a time, she resorted to the structure of pop-ups, Victorian carousel and tunnel books, which allowed for several scenes to be displayed at once in three dimensions. In 1996 she had created The Moon’s Party, a book where the animals invited to the party folded out of the pages, taking that a step further in 1997–98 with NYC Dreams, a three-dimensional carousel book that opened up to 360 degrees and presented five different scenes, each made of layers of paper with cutouts that allowed the reader to see from one layer through to another. Perhaps Dezsö’s best-known work is the 2009 Living Inside series of more than thirty tunnel books, which were shown at the Museum of Arts & Design in New York that year. These presented several layers of paper with cutouts, connected along the side by accordion structures that created little worlds of their own. Ideally shown in the dark, they were equipped with LED lights that produced different variations of mood within the book, without having to turn the page. Many Victorian books were about travel, and they fascinate Dezsö, who considers them mainly works of fiction. She believes it is very likely that the authors of these books did not travel to the places they were describing, yet they
wrote seemingly accurate accounts that were presented as real. The descriptions were generated from stories that other people told, sometimes part of a common narrative; others were passed across generations. Just like Dezsö, these authors traveled in their imaginations; yet she wishes that, just as she does, they had included dreams, prophecies, recipes, and horror tales in their books. Born in Transylvania, Romania, under a communist regime, with no possibility of travel and no television, Dezsö turned to books, collecting, and the idiosyncrasies of her family members to create her own world and do her imaginary traveling. This would prove to be richer than reality, and just as valid. Her attraction for insects (she finds them beautiful and perfect), postage stamps, bizarre animals, carnivorous plants, folk tales, odd fantasies, unusual fears, strange phobias, and interplanetary travel also fed her imagination. Like many artists before her, Dezsö concentrates on her inner visions. With a similar attitude to those of the 1920s Surrealists and their écriture automatique,6 she does not have a premeditated plan when starting a work. She allows her creativity to be fed from deep in the unconscious, on dreams, hallucinations, the supernatural, the irrational, and the absurd. For her, just as for the Surrealists, “theoretical investigations were of no help; only practical experiments would do.” 7 Through labor-intensive experiments, she develops hallucinatory narratives and nightmarish apparitions that operate outside the control of reason and have a disdainful perspective on moral concerns.
Just like surrealist Spanish painter Remedios Varo—who also grew up in a constricted educational system of unquestionable traditional beliefs, was taught the ladylike craft of embroidery, emigrated to pursue her artistic career and ended up in America—Dezsö creates otherworldly scenes that represent the escape from an old and oppressive world. In both their work we find self-portraits that inhabit a world of shadows, of fears, of narrow hallways and tight caverns. Theirs is a gloomy atmosphere, saturated with fantasy and wit. In their imaginations, several worlds get combined: nature and technology, animal and vegetal, transient and permanent, confinement and escape, the living and the dead. Travelers themselves, both artists are fascinated by other travelers. Dezsö confesses that since childhood she has been obsessed with space exploration and the space race, a common theme in her native Romanian while she was growing up.
Men Will Like Me More (Lessons From My Mother series), 2006 Cotton and metallic floss embroidery on cotton fabric 5 x 5 inches
Yet, Dezsö does offer her own take on moralizing folk wisdom from Transylvania, delivering it with a keen sense of humor. Her famous embroideries Lessons From My Mother, a series of 48 cotton squares, each with a cautionary and superstitious tale accompanied by a pictogram, conjure her mother’s particular beliefs and present them as an arbitrary concoction. One reads, “My mother claimed that too much laughter ends up in crying and if you laugh on Friday you will cry on Sunday.” Another says, “My mother claimed that you should not hold back your bowel movements or else the feces will come out through your mouth.” And yet one more, “My mother claimed that men will like me more if I pretend to be less smart,” this last accompanied by a precious embroidered sequence of a female profile with a progressively shrinking brain. No wonder that, when asked what she wanted to be when she grew up, she would reply, “I want to be a man.”
She adds, “I love the naïvely bold imagery of that period, graphics meant to convey man’s power to conquer space.” 8Art historian Janet A. Kaplan explains that Remedios Varo placed paramount relevance on travel, having emigrated several times, and on sinister encounters with travelers because they embodied the fears of a grown woman while yielding to childhood fantasies: “Exiled from her country, she embarked on a peregrination that became internalized in order to search for some roots that would become more profound and more stable.”9 Dezsö also turns her attention to other social and political issues besides the narrow-minded and demeaning beliefs that confine women’s spontaneity and intellectual freedom. While she undermines mores generally accepted by a respectable society, she is very interested in how those beliefs are communicated. “I am interested in the ways images have been used through contemporary history to maintain power imbalances within societies, images designed to manipulate. They typically target people from less powerful societal groups: women, children, minorities, immigrants, the poor, the sick, conquered nations, third world countries. I believe it is very important for design students to learn about this ongoing practice and decide whether as professionals they will participate in propagating it or will stand up against it.”10 Her strategy is to work at the intersection of a world for children and a world for adults, a world that belongs in its own way to each and every one of us.
Her surreal associations and the highly detailed, labor-intensive nature of her work force us to take a very slow look at what is in front of us. We defy hastiness and the immediate absorption of a simple image. We make an effort to understand the world that she presents, but we cannot; we can only feel and comprehend portions, instinctively, through our own world of illusion. We thus resist the manipulation of our reason, since Dezsö never fails to transport us to a world of possibilities, unexpected depth and meaning, of daydreams, of freefloating imagery, of the unconscious; a realm that cannot be controlled. At The Aldrich, Dezsö presents us with a powerful journey to the interior of our psyches through a site-specific, giant tunnel book/diorama in the windows of the Museum’s historic Main Street building. Tapping into our childhood imaginings, fears and fascinations, the exhibition is inspired by Connecticut’s haunted places. It opens on Halloween night because that is the time when we can trespass across the barrier between the world of the living and the world of the dead. Connecticut, let us not forget, is famous as the setting for several suspense movies.11 12 The historically charged town of Ridgefield and The Aldrich’s own Old Hundred 13 building offer the perfect setting to present Dezsö’s cast of characters, who could easily inhabit different worlds. After engaging in extensive research on popular local tales about haunted mansions, schools, and hospitals, the artist realized that these stories present a specific emphasis not on the person or personality of the apparition, but on the atmosphere of the overall environment. Her take is that some architectural features and ornaments typical of the buildings in the area are suspiciously attractive. They remind her of the irresistible gingerbread house in the German fairytale Hansel and Gretel, inhabited by a witch who attracted and then devoured children. Dezsö’s diorama for The Aldrich is plagued by creepy child-like characters in an equally creepy environment. They are playing out scenes that may not have a happy ending. It is not clear if these characters are specters themselves or children
Haunted Ridgefield, 2010 Drawing of elements and figures prepared for installation at The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum
who interact and play with spirits. In the artist’s world there is no difference. In fact, she communicates with the dead, “Occasionally I send postcards to people I love who died many years ago,” she explains. The somewhat surreal setting for the figurines presents motifs from nature, such as spider’s webs and creeper plants, which convey a certain level of mystery and danger. These motifs are extended into the building’s architecture. The artist has created new Victorian-like fretwork for the porch (corbels, gable decorations, and column brackets), with ornaments that are “deadly” beautiful and irresistible. “Nature always reminds me of death and transience, but then again most things remind me of death and transience.”14 Ultimately, for Dezsö it is in the amoral aspect of nature (neither good nor bad), the limbo realm of a presence without a body (a specter), and any domain where the new and unexpected may appear— where the poetic and metaphorical are realities and where spontaneity and internal intellectual freedom are the commonality—that she feels at home. And remember, Dezsö was born in Transylvania…. Mónica Ramírez-Montagut, curator 1. Andrea Dezsö on Making Art for McSweeney’s: http//www.nyfa.org /nyfa_current_detail.asp?id=272&fid=1&sid=17&curid=673 2. Ibid. 3. Ibid. 4. Andrea Dezsö, Fetish Book, interview by George Mill, p. 33. Fetish Book is part of The 2006 Publikum Calendar Project (Belgrade: Publikum, 2006). 5. http://centerforbookarts.org. This organization encourages the understanding of the book as an art object. 6. Cathrin Klingsöhr-Lehroy, Surrealism (Germany: Taschen, 2006), p. 8. 7. Ibid., p. 9. 8. Dezsö, Fetish Book, p. 116. 9. Janet A. Kaplan, Viajes Inesperados. El arte y la vida de Remedios Varo (Mexico: Ediciones Era, 1988), p. 9 (translated from Spanish by MRM). 10. Andrea Dezsö, http://andreadezso.com/FEATURES_Interview3.html 11. The Other (1972), The Stepford Wives (1975 and 2004), Beetlejuice (1988), The Thinner (1996), Hearts in Atlantis (2001), The Quiet (2005), The Other Side of the Tracks (2008), The Haunting in Connecticut (2009), and Plague Town (2009), to name a few. 12. A Revolutionary War battle took place in Ridgefield on April 27, 1777, between Patriots and Loyalists. The Battle of Ridgefield was a temporary success for the British, who soon had to retreat from inland Connecticut. 13. Some staff members admit to having heard footsteps in the uninhabited attic of the historically important 1783 building at night. 14. Dezsö, Fetish Book, p. 5.
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Sometimes In My Dreams I Fly (partial installation view at Rice Gallery, Houston), 2010 Courtesy of the artist and Frey Norris Contemporary & Modern, San Francisco Photo: Nash Baker
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