Diana Shpungin | Bright Light/Darkest Shadow

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Diana

Shpungin

Bright Light Darkest Shadow





Diana

Shpungin

Bright Light Darkest Shadow

Hand Drawn Pencil Animations 2007 – 2020 Museum of Contemporary Art Tucson Curated by Ginger Shulick-Porcella January 11 – May 3, 2020

Copyright © 2021 Diana Shpungin Published by Museum of Contemporary Art Tucson ISBN: 978-0-9978712-2-7



Table of Contents

Bright Light/Darkest Shadow Ginger Shulick-Porcella 5 “that accident which pricks me” Lisa D. Freiman 9

Installation Views 22 Poem: The Goddess of Pencils

Matthea Harvey 29 Image Plates 32

Still Life (Triptych) Richard Klein 76

Image Plates Index 84 Biographies 91 Acknowledgements 95

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Diana Shpungin: Bright Light/Darkest Shadow

Ginger Shulick-Porcella

Diana Shpungin is perhaps best known for her ubiquitous use of graphite in meticulously created sculpture and hand-drawn animation – so much so that she even has an American Hairless Terrier named “Pencil.” Shpungin has dedicated her career to exploring the myriad ways this everyday yet extraordinarily foreign object can be elevated beyond the realm of simple drawing. True, lines are created, but they are also tested and destroyed, boundaries and expectations expanded. The idea of mark-making is something most artists understand keenly – the physical act of putting pencil to paper and creating something from nothing, and the underlying analogy of trying to make your lasting mark on the world is the existential battle most artists must face. The title for this show – Bright Light/Darkest Shadow – itself points to the many gradients that are possible to obtain with just a single pencil. In this expansive museum exhibition, Shpungin shows us not just the typical outcome of when paper meets pencil, but instead rather animated (literally) drawings. Neither completely narrative nor abstract, these haunting images flicker somewhere in-between, a limbo where the viewer is thrust between nostalgia and alienation, consciousness and imagination. These dichotomies are a common theme throughout Shpungin’s work over the past decade – the fight for hope in a world full of despair or the constant strive for empathy in times where apathy reigns supreme. It is no surprise that through the medium of graphite, Shpungin seeks to push the limits with this simple tool, to perhaps naively recall a subject from a flickering memory. To animate the inanimate, these “failed animations” as Shpungin refers to them, are successful because quite simply, they are not. In Shpungin’s newest work, To Extinguish The Sun (2020), this laborious four minute, twenty five second video comprised of hundreds of drawings, shows us the artist’s hand, process, and the care put into every single stop motion animation frame. This is a rare opportunity for the viewer to experience the medium of animation presented in a contemporary art museum, a medium all too 5


frequently relegated to design. However, Shpungin proves all those critics wrong, as surely nothing has ever been so decisively mesmerizing. Within a few moments of the video’s start, we subtly acknowledge the sound, like a quiet wind through the trees, filtered through memory and time. I keep checking my speakers to see if the reverberations are real or just in my mind, and it is only later I come to learn that these are the first sounds recorded on Mars in November 2019. In fact, meteorites from Mars are found to contain specks of graphite in them, with many speculating that this carbon-based allotrope may be an indication of life on Mars.

Watching closely, we observe that the paper is not all pristine and neat. It is crumpled, folded, erased, torn, hewn together – the sun trying hard to break through the rain and clouds. It’s almost the sensation of being on a boat, with an undulating yet indeterminate object on the horizon. We deeply feel how many ways the medium of paper can evoke an emotion – love, patience, anticipation, or terror. The materiality of the image waxes and wanes, and I find myself once again sitting under that weeping willow on the water’s edge of the bluffs below my grandparents’ house thirty five years ago. All that with just paper and pencil. And when you think you’ve seen it all, the paper itself ignites and self-destructs, the sun burning too close to the surface. Each frame is itself a beautiful masterpiece, and part of a larger cautionary tale of death and rebirth. If you stay through to the end, you even get a reward – the artist’s hand trying in vain to capture the sun. The irony is that Shpungin herself is


the creator of the sun, and her creation is now beyond her control. Assuming the role of divine architect, Shpungin ultimately defines future worlds. In contrast to this singular work, Shpungin also presents To Get Out Of The Way (2020), a dark and subtle piece, sourced from an impressive five hundred and four unique drawings, paired with a vaguely diabolical atonal score. At the beginning of the video, we see a man walking through a desert landscape until he himself becomes the landscape. The video pans up to the sky, then the figure returns only to once again obliterate our view. Similar sequences repeat themselves with various people and landscapes – a desert, a forest, the sea. We as viewers feel exceptionally alone, like the figures themselves. Stars and wind and leaves all become graphite. Like To Extinguish The Sun, this piece feels familiar, yet foreign. Humans evolve from and eventually return to nature in a subtle ballet mirroring the classic figure-ground relationship. Forwards and backwards, like the video, like the music, like humankind’s eventual devolution and exodus. While we may never know if there is life on Mars, we do know that there is life, and devotion, in this body of work. One can only surmise how difficult it must have been for Shpungin to painstakingly recreate her father’s death portrait over and over again in Until It No Longer (2007-2011), or render her father’s burial site in His View (2011). Through the act of recreating these deeply personal spaces and memories over and over, the artist flattens not only the image for the viewer, but the memory for herself. It is no longer a memory that belongs to the artist, but to all who view the exhibition. Ultimately, Bright Light/Darkest Shadow is a reflection of what rests inside all of us – the capacity to create and nurture beauty, and the ability to enact that which is unspeakable.

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Diana Shpungin: “that accident which pricks me”1

Lisa D. Freiman

Bright Light/Darkest Shadow is the first exhibition to assemble the hand-drawn video animations that Diana Shpungin has been making for over a decade. Installed within several galleries painted black, the works animate the spaces, introducing flickering images that, when taken together as a single installation, appear to function like neurological synapses sparking diverse sensorial, psychological, and dreamlike experiences from different times and places, both real and imagined. The animations of graphite drawings, which provide glimpses of both mundane and mysterious situations, offer emotive vignettes that originate from old color family photographs and video footage, fractured memories, newly filmed situations, and stream-of-consciousness thoughts. Beginning in graduate school at the School of Visual Arts in 2000 and on through 2009, Shpungin worked only in collaboration with another artist making performance-based video. But her father’s death in 2007 ignited an “inexplicable urge” to start drawing with pencil, perhaps because it was “permanent, but still erasable” and a perfect way to connote “memory and loss.”2 Shpungin still made several other video works independently before turning almost exclusively to drawing – and more specifically – to graphite. The animated drawings that followed are deeply personal yet universal portraits of the poignancy and fleeting nature of memory and the past. An initial touch point for this body of animated drawings corresponded with Shpungin’s re-reading of French cultural theorist Roland Barthes’s last published work Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. Barthes’s text famously chronicles his grief over his mother’s death as he sifts through old photographs trying to find an image that justly captures her essence, her “radiant core” – the punctum – the wounding, poignant details that he believed would register only for him. Starting with the most recent photographs going back to the oldest, Barthes continued to come up empty-handed. None of them were “quite right.” He only recognized his mother “in fragments” until he finally discovered a faded sepia photograph of her at five years old, standing with her brother on a wooden bridge inside a glassed “Winter Garden.”3 Barthes refused to reproduce the photograph in his book 1  Roland Barthes and Richard Howard, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography (New York: Hill and Wang, 1981), p. 27. 2  Email with Diana Shpungin, December 12, 2019. All subsequent quotations stem from this discussion unless otherwise noted. 3  Barthes, p. 65.

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because, he argued, “It exists only for me. For you, it would be nothing but an indifferent picture.”4 Shpungin remembers being “obsessed” with Barthes’s search to find a photograph that somehow captured his mother’s essence, and was also fascinated by his refusal to reproduce it once discovered. She explained: “It got me thinking about the personal in contemporary art and why the personal is often overlooked or thought of as ‘too personal.’” Shpungin concluded that what makes something “palatable” for a broad public audience depended on what was “revealed and concealed.” How could she take the personal to the public so that “the radiant core” could be felt beyond the individual? 4

Ibid., p. 73.


The first work that Shpungin made after her father’s death, which didn’t begin as a project at all, was Until It No Longer (2007-2011), a poignant record of the relentlessness, unpredictability, and numbness of mourning. It began, unexpectedly, with a color photograph she took of her father in his casket just before it was closed. It shows him close up wearing a white shirt, patterned tie, and jacket. Shpungin kept this image on her computer, but rarely looked at it because she found it too painful. Whenever she came across it, she “would click away time and time again.” About a year after her father’s death, she forced herself to look at the photograph and decided to draw it “again and again” to “take the power away from the pain of the image.” She said: “I had an impulse to draw using pencil. It was an inexplicable urge. Perhaps the basic nature of it, the idea that pencils are permanent and also erasable, lent well to the idea of memory and loss.” The purpose of this repetitive process was to displace her focus from the image itself to the movement of her hand, to the forms and patterns of the marks made in real time – her time – using a predetermined system (the picture of her father) that defined the limits of the drawing. Shpungin continued to re-draw the portrait over many years until she “became somewhat anesthetized” to it. The patterns of lines over the course of forty nine drawings eventually became wholly abstract to her. When she finished the last drawing, she decided to animate all of them without adding any sound. Devoid of color, the figure remains still in uncomfortable silence while the slight variations in marks create a flickering effect that somehow only exaggerates the finality and stillness of death. 11


Nothing happens. Shpungin describes the decision to animate the drawings as a “conceptual gesture of longing and failure.” The image is recognizable, but anonymous, numbing not just because it is a picture of a deceased father (although not everyone will know this), but because the image ultimately is not her (or any) father. Even to a stranger, the image contains nothing of a man’s essence even though it represents his features, the details of his clothes, and his physical location – all things Barthes would have described as the studium. The video projects a palpable emptiness and even an uncanny boredom that results from the fact that the animated drawings keep repeating in an endless loop. Until It No Longer kindled Shpungin’s love for graphite as well as her belief that drawing has the conceptual potential to “capture memory, the elusiveness of it, the feeling of it, better than a photograph does.” After her father’s death, while going through his estate, Shpungin found a trove of photos that she hadn’t seen in years. Looking through them was “partly necessity, part mourning, part remembrance.”5 It reminded her of Barthes’s search for his mother in his photos after her death. Shpungin based her next work Endless Ocean (2011) on a specific old color photo found in her family’s archive that contained what Barthes would have described as the “justice and accuracy – justesse” of her father’s person.6 Explaining her selection of this picture, Shpungin said: “The photo had everything. Beauty, nature, humor, arrogance, and a bit of unintended sadism, I think. It summed up the complexity of his being in one image compared to many others.”7 5  6  7

Email with the artist, January 8, 2020. Barthes., p. 70. Email with the artist, January 8, 2020.


Like the original photograph, the re-drawings of the picture show her father on a beach wearing a Speedo and holding onto the leg of a seagull struggling to escape. Unlike the figure in Until It No Longer, the father’s defining features have been erased, filled in with dark graphite that anonymizes and abstracts the figure. The details that spark the memory of her father are not located in the face or the specifics of the body, but in the white Speedo and outstretched arm that holds the gull’s leg. In focusing on these two details and adding the sound of the waves and fluttering, screeching birds (recorded at the actual beach where the photograph was taken decades before), she consciously signified the mysterious feelings and memories associated with that lost moment pregnant with her father’s essence. Endless Ocean explores the interplay of precise details as well as their omission to suggest how memory lapses leave us with gaps that make it impossible to recover events and experiences as completely as they occurred in real time. The work is the beginning of an ongoing investigation into how drawing and animation can conjure indescribable experiences in personal and communal terms. His View (2011) is Shpungin’s first video that depicts a complete action: the artist places roses at a her father’s gravesite, removes them, and disappears from the frame. The relatively straightforward sequence, which runs in a continuous loop, is shot from the perspective of the buried person; as such, it places the viewer in the position of looking up at the silhouette, the tree canopy, and the flickering sun in the sky. Shpungin filmed the scene on site, selected stills from the film, drew the stills, photographed the drawings, and then edited the photographs into a video that lasts less than two minutes. The work is more abstract than either of the previous two that take her father as their subject. It begins with quickly scribbled graphite marks that fill most of the frame, pulsating in sync with the sun’s bright light shining just to the right of center with the familiar sounds of rustling leaves and birds. The image and sounds linger for fifty seconds, nearly one-third of the video’s length. Immediately afterwards, the black silhouette moves into the frame from the right and bends down towards the gravesite, leaving a bouquet of roses. Several seconds later the silhouette takes over most of the right side of the frame, introducing a major black shape that dominates the composition. From 13


left to right we see several roses sketched with longer, more continuous lines that define the petals and leaves. They press up against the glistening tree canopy comprised of hundreds of varied short pencil marks that abut the dark silhouette. Immediately afterward, the figure recedes from the frame and only the roses, tree, and sun-filled sky remain until near the end of the action when the dark figure returns, removes the flowers, and exits screen right. The remaining seconds of the video return to the original flickering frames depicting the sun filtering through the leaves of the tree canopy. Unlike, Until It No Longer, the animation, especially the flickering light and air moving through the branches, does not short circuit; instead, the repeated activity connotes the coexistence of life and death and longing and loss that are experienced differently from person to person. Shpungin creates this effect not through verisimilitude, but through the poetic elaboration of the mise en scène where the multisensory experiences of seeing and hearing the trees, breeze, and birds, as well as the movement of the body to and from the grave, do send messages to the viewer that trigger associations that inevitably will differ from person to person. The fact that the video plays in a continuous loop forces the viewer to watch the same action – placing and removing flowers from a grave – over and over in an unending confrontation that suggests the cycling of experience and memory.


Disappearing Act (2012), which is also presented in a continuous loop, is comprised of fifty distinct drawings that depict the repeated action of an anonymous person (a white silhouette outlined in continuous black contour lines) on the left part of the composition who is shaking out a striped blanket in the wind against the backdrop of the ocean and sky. Like Endless Ocean, the video is based on a family photograph from her childhood, but the actual animation was sourced from a recreation of the picture that she staged on the same Long Island beach where it was originally taken. Going back to that beach to restage the photo was a way to collapse time and spark past memories: child and adult, past and present, what is retained and what is forgotten. Shpungin selected stills from the film that she drew and then animated. Although numerous things briefly transpire in the video – a person shakes out a blanket, a plane flies across the sky, and a figure walks along the shoreline – the protagonist is the bold and beautiful striped blanket itself, which fills most of the frames and oscillates like a wave or the sound of the surf incorporated in the video. The power of this work lies not in the portrayal of an action anyone could have witnessed, but in the mesmerizing ebb and flow of the dancing striped blanket that moves the viewer into an almost hypnotic state of calm. The title of the work suggests the way the blanket obscures the view of the ocean, beach, and sky, but it also suggests the fact that the silhouetted figure in the work is increasingly immaterial, receding from the foreground and allowing abstraction to take over as the primary means of connotation. It is worth noting that ever since her first drawings of her father in his casket in Until It No Longer, and in his 15


hospital bed in the work You Will Remember This (2011), Shpungin has never depicted a person with defining facial features again. While Endless Ocean includes the triggering details of the struggling seagull and her father’s swimsuit, subsequent works only include anonymous silhouettes that enable a viewer to fill in the contours with thoughts of themselves or others. It is the hypnotic blanket now that sets into motion a host of moving recollections and associations unique to each viewer that hover “ambiguously between remembering and forgetting.”8 Subsequent animations also located at the sea, such as Figure And Ground (2012), continue to deploy abstraction as a means of creating a metaphor for memory and loss. The title refers to Gestalt psychology and the cognitive ability to distinguish two contrasting elements, such as dark and light or black and white. During the first ten seconds of Figure And Ground the screen is comprised entirely of thicklyworked layers of graphite accompanied only by the sound of crashing surf. The black monochrome recalls repeated experiments with black monochrome paintings going back to Kasimir Malevich’s first iconic black square painting in 1915. Art critic Peter Schjeldahl once described the black painted form as “more like thoughts than images.” He explained: “You don’t look at the picture so much as launch yourself into its trackless empyrean.”9 8  https://dianashpungin.com/2013/05/13/disappearing-act/ 9  https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2011/03/14/shapes-of-things.

Accessed 2/1/2020.


While this frame obviously shares only superficial similarities with Malevich’s black square or any of the numerous monochromes with which subsequent artists have experimented, Shpungin’s black frame does provide a moment for the viewer’s own meditative immersion in the darkness until the camera slowly moves away from the black field, revealing lighter contours around it that gradually displace the black to become the ground. Meanwhile, the monochromatic blackness transforms into a figure – in this case a Surrealist-inspired biomorphic shape that actually is a hole in the sand being filled with a black shovel that we see from above. As the camera continues to zoom out and the hole is filled in, the black form disappears, yielding to a new lighter ground, another allover drawing that now consists of looping, scribbled, entangled lines of different densities and lengths that recall the abstract gray drawings of artists like Cy Twombly and others who emulated his graffiti-like marks. The camera continues to zoom into the linear web and the closer it moves, the lighter the lines become until they have faded to the point of invisibility. All that remains is a vacant white screen (yes, there is a history of white monochromes, too, beginning with Malevich) until the camera gradually zooms out. As it does, the faint swirling lines begin to reappear, getting darker the farther the camera retreats until we begin to see the black hole and shovel reappear in the upper right corner, reversing the direction of the film until it works its way back to the original black void. The temporal trajectory of the film, which moves forward and backwards in a continuous loop, approximates the way our own focus and perspective shift in time. This video animation is disorienting not just because of its temporal shuffle, but because it also is difficult to understand exactly what you are seeing. Much of it is purely abstract, especially in the beginning, middle, and end. Even when the recognizable form of the shovel briefly appears, the amorphic black shape below it remains puzzling: Is it the shadow of the figure above? A puddle? The sound of shoveling sand and the ocean provides contextual clues about what the shape of the black form is. As the video progresses, the frames become increasingly abstract, almost as if the viewer is entering into the drawings themselves navigating through the swirling lines, the patches of dark, the frames of light. The heightened abstraction – like the bodily contours in the previous 17


videos – allows the viewer to slip into the space of the work – challenging Barthes’s notion of “banality” by introducing connection, empathy, and “singularity.”10 Reoccurring Tide (2016) likewise begins with a mostly abstract series of drawings that incorporate loosely-drawn, looping, expressive lines that surround a black biomorphic form. The soundtrack of the ocean surf and several subsequent stills quickly make it apparent that the ambiguous form is actually a person (again a black silhouette) floating against an ocean backdrop. It is unclear whether or not the floating figure is alive or dead and that ultimately is the point. The waves carry the body back and forth in different directions over and over and over without resolution. Moving between life and death, sea and shore, past and present, the drawings along with the rhythmic crashing water evoke an amniotic state, generating a sense of calmness despite the uncertainty. Reoccurring Tide, like Disappearing Act and Figure And Ground, plays with the tension between figuration and abstraction to suggest the indescribable interrelatedness of experience and memory. The Light In The Dark (The Optimist) and The Dust In The Light (The Pessimist) (both 2015) are Shpungin’s first purely abstract animations. Although they can be displayed separately, they are more powerful together when their opposite qualities of light and dark “contradict and complete” each other. The Light In The Dark (The Optimist) exposes the actual materiality of graphite, a crystalline form of carbon that occurs naturally under normal conditions and is an excellent conductor of heat and electricity. Shpungin made the work by completely covering many pieces of drawing paper with thick, heavy pencil marks built up from the physical pressure of the hand dragging the pencil against the paper’s surface until it was unable to absorb any more graphite. She then used 10

Barthes, p. 76.


a camera with a flash and photographed the drawings before filming and editing them and adding the manipulated sound recording of the pencil moving across the paper, a reference to its creation. The work echoes Robert Morris’s early literalist sculpture, Box with the Sound of Its Own Making (1961), a simple wooden cube accompanied by a recording of him making the object over three-and-ahalf hours. Shpungin’s video turns the dynamic silvery, sometimes wrinkled drawings into abstract protagonists that come to life and breathe like the shaken striped blanket in Disappearing Act and the tumultuous sea in Reoccurring Tide. The illuminating camera flash used in this work brings to life the opaque grayish-black drawings and seems to suggest something coming into being from nothingness. Although the light actually refracts from the dense graphite, it appears to intermittently peek through it, offering a metaphor for optimism in the midst of darkness. The Dust In The Light (The Pessimist) presents as the opposite of its sister work. It consists of a white ground activated by numerous delicate, dancing graphite lines of different lengths and intensities. They flicker across the field like static across a television screen while a sound akin to a white noise machine or a blowing fan flattens out the work’s overall affect, reinforcing the overall sense of monotony. Not unlike Until It No Longer, despite the variety of lines, their tedious repetition creates a sense of boredom. In this work, however, the addition of the monotonous sound makes it even darker. Together the lines and sound become a suggestion of depression and hopelessness. As the video’s title suggests, the lines (or dust) obscure clarity. They are an unrelenting visual nuisance that never yields to openness. So, ironically, despite the fact that this video is literally brighter than the other one comprised of dark, layered graphite, it actually feels much darker. Placed together, the two complete each other, showing the coexistence of light and dark and pessimism and optimism. 19


Felix Gonzalez-Torres “Untitled” (Loverboy), 1989

The 2015 animated video A Draft (For Felix) is Shpungin’s homage to an important aesthetic inspiration, the American, Cuban born artist Felix Gonzalez-Torres, who was known for his minimal, haunting, and elegiac installations that, while contextually open, could often serve as conceptual memorials and abstract portraits for deceased lovers, friends, and family. Shpungin’s work, which cleverly references the parenthetic titling system that Gonzalez-Torres used for his “Untitled” works, can be seen as a memorial for the artist. A Draft (For Felix) presents a light curtain blowing in the breeze. The video is a conceptual portrait that takes as its point of departure Gonzalez-Torres’s somber installation “Untitled” (Loverboy), made in 1989. That minimal, yet highly personal work is comprised of simple diaphanous light blue curtains that hang inside the windows of a sparse room, and when the choice is made to leave the windows open, the curtains gracefully register the slightest breeze. While there are many open-ended interpretive possibilities to this work, it could be looked at as a universally symbolic metaphor for absence and loss as well as a poignant portrait of Gonzalez-Torres’s lover, Ross Laycock, who had been diagnosed with AIDS and eventually died in 1991. Shpungin’s decision to use the word “Draft” in her title cleverly evokes the layered nature of her tribute, a nod to the metaphoric and conceptual play found throughout Torres’s work. The title alludes to a draft of a drawing, something that hasn’t been fully resolved or is incomplete. It also suggests a breath – that draft of air we draw into our lungs to stay alive. And it even recognizes


the importance of a draft in Gonzalez-Torres’s work itself, which depends on the movement of air to evoke the overall sense of absence and loss. A Draft (For Felix), which is predominantly abstract and conceptual, suggests a culmination of sorts, an example of Shpungin’s increasing efforts to pare down a work so that it better conveys “time, process, memory, longing, anticipation, failure.” The minimal poetry of this work and The Light In The Dark (The Optimist) and The Dust In The Light (The Pessimist) are at the opposite pole from her first animation, Until It No Longer. The development of the work over time demonstrates Shpungin’s understanding that we need not see everything. Some details need to be omitted, retained, added, or altered in order to convey “an intangible feeling . . . a feeling that is impossible to describe in words . . . a shared universality in an experience.” Thus, subsequent works, such as Endless Ocean, His View, Disappearing Act, and Reoccurring Tide, introduce anonymous outlines and silhouettes in order to create “an openness and entrance” through which we can launch ourselves “into [their] trackless empyrean.” These initial abstract forms eventually overtake the compositions, pushing out anything that could be viewed as too closely associated with something specifically personal. By the last few works, although graphite remains foundational, Shpungin’s abstraction gives form, gesture, and sound the powerful, indescribable punctum that “pricks” the viewer, giving them “a sentiment as certain as remembrance.” 11 © Lisa Freiman 2020

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Barthes, p. 70. 21



Installation Views

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The Goddess of Pencils

Matthea Harvey

had her choice of the P’s and passed on Goddess of Pearls or Perennials.

She isn’t interested in anything enduring endless irritation only to be pried open for a single lustrous bauble.

Nor does she want to be lauded for the simple fact of living through winter, spring, summer, fall, over and over again. Because she knows the feeling of keeping

silvery secrets locked inside until they must spill out, she chooses pencils, spends centuries waiting

for people to invent them. She does give one little push— makes a shepherd trip over a shiny boulder then notice

the way it stains his hem. Before long he is marking his sheep with the strange substance so his neighbor can’t steal from him. Soon they’re digging mines, lining cannonball moulds

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with graphite for a smoother weapon. This was not quite

what she had in mind. Never mind. Here comes the first pencil just as she imagined it, one grey moon-dot in a wooden

hexagonal sky. Now thoughts, light and various as the breeze, are being launched back and forth across seas.

True, there are days when she’d prefer to be indelible instead of interim (could have chosen ink),

but call her infatuated with slate-grey, argent-ardent, and she’ll slow-blink her assent. She does love the way the doves on telephone wires at dusk look penciled in. All over the globe she can hear the quiet crunch of

thousands of pencils spinning inside pencil sharpeners. A child is peering at a pencil on his desk. He picks up a second pencil, begins to draw the first.

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Image

Plates

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Installation view from the exhibition (Untitled) Portrait Of Dad, 2011, New York, NY


Until It No Longer 2007/2011

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Endless Ocean 2011

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His View 2011

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Installation view from the exhibition (Untitled) Portrait Of Dad, including 1664 Sundays, 2011, New York, NY


You Will Remember This 2011

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Figure And Ground 2012

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Disappearing Act 2012

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Reoccurring Tide 2016

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Installation view from the exhibition Drawing Of A House (Triptych), 2015/2016, SiTE:LAB, Grand Rapids, MI


Chronicle Of A Now Empty Space 2015

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Knowing How To Break Glass Quietly (The Ascetic) 2015

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A Severed Limb Persuaded To Return 2015

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Installation view from the exhibition Drawing Of A House (Triptych), 2015/2016, SiTE:LAB, Grand Rapids, MI


The Dust In The Light (The Pessimist) 2015

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A Draft (For Felix) 2015

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A Smudge May Well Be An Apparition 2015

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Installation view from the exhibition Drawing Of A House (Triptych), 2015/2016, SiTE:LAB, Grand Rapids, MI


A Million To One (For Blue Velvet) 2015

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The Vanishing Point 2015

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The Light In The Dark (The Optimist) 2015

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To Extinguish The Sun 2020

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To Get Out Of The Way 2020

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Diana Shpungin makes hand-drawn animations based on video she has recorded. Her commissioned work for the exhibition Twenty Twenty for The Aldrich Museum of Contemporary Art, is Still Life (Triptych) (2020), a three-screen video animation composed of two hundred and eighty individual pencil drawings. The artist’s gestural style stands apart from the photorealism that one usually associates with photographically derived drawing, as the motion and character of her hand are very much in evidence. Shpungin has chosen not to utilize overtly political subject matter for this exhibition that focuses on the tumultuous events of the year 2020, but rather to tackle the anxiety of this troubled moment through a contemporary take on vanitas, the still-life painting genre that was popular in Belgium, the Netherlands, and Spain in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Vanitas commonly used symbols of life’s transience, including skulls, hourglasses, and flowers, and each of

Installation view from the three-channel, hand-drawn pencil animation, Still Life (Triptych), 2020, The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum, Ridgefield, CT


Still Life (Triptych)

Richard Klein

the screens in Shpungin’s reinvention features one of these symbols, rendered in pencil from video shot in her studio. These objects hover over other drawn video imagery. For instance, in the second screen of the triptych, titled Still Life (Forwards And Backwards) (2020), an hourglass endlessly tumbles over the image of an abstracted crowd of protesters, the source of which was video footage shot during a recent march in Washington, DC. It should be noted that Shpungin conceived of the triptych prior to both the pandemic and 2020’s racial justice revolution, but her approach has proven to be prescient. “I chose the Philippe de Champaigne, Vanitas Still Life, 1671 form of a contemporary memento mori,” Shpungin has written, “as a keen reminder to remember to live, to fight, and to remember this moment, perhaps as not to repeat it again.”1 Each screen has a separate audio track, including the sound of rain, the reverberating murmur of a meditation bell, and white noise, allowing in the words of the artist “both contemplation and escape.” Shpungin’s primary medium of choice is the humble graphite pencil and her work with this simplest of drawing tools reflects her deep-seated belief in removing as much as possible the mediation of her ego from the act of creation. Unlike other more complicated mediums, the directness of the hand moving a pencil is more akin to performance than craft, and Shpungin’s works are both physical and mental meditations on the artist’s chosen subject matter. It should be noted that she rarely erases or throws away a drawing, an approach that reinforces Shpungin’s attitude towards both art and life. In a sense the marks in the artist’s drawings act as intermediaries – counting off each moment by playing the ephemeral nature of gesture against the timelessness of image and narrative. 1  From a statement by the artist sent to the author on July 17, 2020.

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Still Life (Open And Close) 2020

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Still Life (Forward And Backward) 2020

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Still Life (End And Begin) 2020

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Until It No Longer P 10, 11, 34-35

Endless Ocean P 10, 12, 36-37

His View P 14, 38-39

You Will Remember This P 40-41

This work is based on a death portrait taken by the artist, which would be the last photograph taken of her father. Shpungin decided to draw the portrait over and over randomly over several years until she became somewhat anesthetized to the image.

2007/2011 hand-drawn pencil animation from 49 original source drawings continuous loop silent edition of 5

The imagery is based on a family photograph of the artist’s father at the beach, confidently wearing a Speedo and tightly grasping onto a seagulls leg in a playful unconsciously sadistic manner. The photograph was chosen based on the reference to Roland Barthes’s image of his mother in Camera Lucida.

2011 hand-drawn pencil animation from 30 original source drawings continuous loop ambient on-site sound recording edition of 5

Drawings depicting the view from Shpungin’s father’s burial site are animated. A tree is seen flickering with sunlight breaking through, a figure enters/exits the frame in a gesture of honor/resentment.

2011 hand-drawn pencil animation from 48 original source drawings continuous loop ambient on-site sound recording edition of 5

The artist’s father in his hospital bed (from the only known video taken of him months before his death) tells a story of determination and survival in the USSR in the late 1950’s. The story explains how he acquired his first car (a soviet-made Volga) on the black market during communist rule by collecting massive amounts of potatoes.

2011 hand-drawn pencil animation from 20 original source drawings 5 minutes 26 seconds voice recording edition of 5


Image Plates Index

2011 approx. 100 × 150 × 36 inches one ton of potatoes

A monumental work that consists of a massive pile of potatoes, complementing the story in the work You Will Remember This. Given out to attendees, the potato installation includes a limited amount of signed/editioned paper bags with the artist’s father’s recipe – a simple recipe that he cooked on Sundays. The title refers to the exact amount of Sundays that both the artist and her father shared during their overlapping lifetimes.

1664 Sundays

2012 hand-drawn pencil animation from 45 original source drawings continuous loop ambient on-site sound recording edition of 3

Depicting a scene based on a family photograph and a fractured memory. The imagery ambiguously and cohesively represents ideas of landscape, figurative, still life, and abstraction in art making. Shifting between formal, conceptual, and emotional means, the elusive dark silhouette finale is to be buried in a drawing.

Figure And Ground

2012 hand-drawn pencil animation from 50 original source drawings continuous loop ambient on-site sound recording edition of 3

A blanket is seen blowing in the wind at the beach in a hypnotic like gesture, depicting a scene based on a family photograph. Utilizing a non-narrative structure, the work fluctuates between realism and abstraction and hovers somewhere ambiguously between remembering and forgetting. The picture plane itself becomes a symbolic window for the ambiguity evident in memory.

Disappearing Act

2016 hand-drawn pencil animation from 49 original source drawings continuous loop ambient on-site sound recording edition of 3

The graphite pencil drawings depict an indeterminate ocean beach scene with a peculiar figure. The dark silhouette gets washed ashore and pulled back out by the tide in an endless cyclical turn of events, being welcomed and then rejected, only to perpetually exist in a drawing.

Reoccurring Tide

P 40

P 16, 23, 42-43

P 15, 22, 23, 44-45

P 22, 23, 46-47

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Drawing Of A House (Triptych) P 50, 56, 62

Chronicle Of A Now Empty Space P 23, 50, 51

Knowing How To Break Glass Quietly (The Ascetic) P 50, 52-53

A Severed Limb Persuaded To Return P 32, 50, 54-55

A vacant house, formerly a Catholic rectory, was encased entirely by hand in graphite pencil and converted into a community participatory work, massive sculpture, and three dimensional drawing that includes hand-drawn animations projected rearscreen through selected windows. The site-specific installation explored narratives related to the domestic themes embedded in the historical and collective memory of the house.

2015/2016 nine-channel hand-drawn pencil animation graphite pencil hand applied to house continuous loop composed sound editions of 3

An ambiguous narrative pointing to ideas of a transitional domestic space. A candle is seen flickering and blown out, shades are lowered and raised, and a jarring sound is heard as the window is inexplicably covered by plywood, hinting at the myriad of possibilities that a dwelling can inhabit – tenancy, vacancy, and abandonment – merely to return again.

2015 hand-drawn pencil animation from 55 original source drawings continuous loop composed sound edition of 3

A hand-drawn animation that relays solitary themes of existence and secret knowledge. Blinds are seen in a window, a mysterious hand appears, and a single eye quickly peeks through the pane of glass before it fractures without a discernible cause.

2015 hand-drawn pencil animation from 32 original source drawings continuous loop composed sound edition of 3

A hand-drawn animation that conveys ideas of both nurture and injury. A houseplant seen through a window spins inexplicably, is watered, and then harshly pruned only to reappear in an uncanny, supernatural act of redemption.

2015 hand-drawn pencil animation from 123 original source drawings continuous loop composed sound edition of 3


2015 hand-drawn pencil animation from 48 original source drawings continuous loop composed sound edition of 3

This hand-drawn animation consists of numerous drawings of a delicate abstract composition. The mark-making reveals debris captured in the light fluttering with pessimism and selfdeprecation in an otherwise ethereal luminous space.

The Dust In The Light (The Pessimist)

2015 hand-drawn pencil animation from 44 original source drawings continuous loop composed sound edition of 3

A minimal rendering of a bee and a curtain gently blowing in the wind both reference and pay homage to the late American, Cuban-born artist Felix Gonzalez-Torres.

A Draft (For Felix)

2015 hand-drawn pencil animation from 50 original source drawings continuous loop composed sound edition of 3

Many hazy graphite drawings depict seemingly recognizable imagery, encompassing the human tendency of searching for representation within an abstract composition and the often divine phenomenon of pareidolia; of seeing things that are not there.

A Smudge May Well Be An Apparition

2015 hand-drawn pencil animation from 42 original source drawings continuous loop composed sound edition of 3

Referencing the mass of ants equal to humans and our diminutive positions on earth, this work is a favorable nod to the symbolic opening scene of the 1986 David Lynch film, Blue Velvet, where suburbia is not quite what it seems and foreshadows what is to come. An amalgamation of abstraction and representation, the animation fluctuates between formal patterning and something more disquieting.

A Million To One (For Blue Velvet)

P 18, 23, 56, 57

P 21, 23, 32, 56, 58-59

P 56, 60-61

P 22, 62, 63

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The Vanishing Point P 22, 62, 64-65

The Light In The Dark (The Optimist) P 18, 19, 23, 28, 62, 66-67

To Extinguish The Sun P 4, 6, 24-25, 68-69, 96 Endsheets

To Get Out Of The Way P 26-27, 31, 48-49, 70-75 Back Cover

An illuminated hallway is seen with an ambiguous figure approaching. The figure’s hair begins to blow upward chaotically. What may at first seem mysterious, ominous, or even paranormal becomes more abstracted and rooted in a self-reflexive absurdity.

2015 hand-drawn pencil animation from 60 original source drawings continuous loop composed sound edition of 3

This hand-drawn animation process involved covering layers of drawing paper with graphite pencil until the surface couldn’t absorb more graphite and no light could be seen through the paper. The nonrepresentational drawings were then photographed using a flash and set in motion with the sound of pencil on paper highlighting the blackness of the graphite surface.

2015 hand-drawn pencil animation from 32 original source drawings continuous loop composed sound edition of 3

An abstracted celestial sky fluctuates through numerous environmental changes. The drawings were exposed to light, water, fire, puncturing, and generalized destruction to create a flickering jump-shot effect. The artist then obliterates her own creation. The accompanying soundtrack of wind blowing on planet Mars is the very first sound recorded on Mars by NASA in November 2019.

2020 hand-drawn pencil animation from 66 original source drawings with over 500 atmospheric alterations 4 minutes 25 seconds continuous loop sourced composed sound edition of 3

This work illustrates the bond between the human/natural world by focusing on a figure in the landscape advancing forward and receding in the wake of an environmental catastrophe. Silhouettes of figures black-out and reclaim the scenery in a cyclical metaphor. The accompanying sound composition is of Shpungin playing her childhood piano as an adult.

2020 hand-drawn pencil animation from 504 original source drawings 2 minutes 20 seconds continuous loop composed sound edition of 3


2020 three-channel hand-drawn pencil animation from 280 original source drawings continuous loop composed sound edition of 3

Taking inspiration from Philippe de Champaigne’s Vanitas Still Life painting of the 1600’s, this painstakingly hand-drawn triptych situates icons of historical still life painting within contemporary settings. The accompanying composition consisting of a meditation bell, the sound of rain, and white noise, was created to provide a meditative space that inspires both contemplation and escape.

Still Life (Triptych)

2020 hand-drawn pencil animation from 100 original source drawings continuous loop composed sound edition of 3

An iris flower appears budding, blooming, and dying, looping endlessly in a symbolic cycle of optimism and pessimism, life and death. The opposing chain link fence is both a simple backyard fence and a symbol emblematic of themes of confinement and barriers.

Still Life (Open And Close)

2020 hand-drawn pencil animation from 100 original source drawings continuous loop composed sound edition of 3

An hourglass is rendered unreliable, keeping ambiguous time. Persistently rotated in a never-ending timekeeping mission, the sand passes through the funnel at an implausible speed. The background imagery is sourced from an abstracted crowd of protesters.

Still Life (Forward And Backward)

2020 hand-drawn pencil animation from 80 original source drawings continuous loop composed sound edition of 3

A rotating skull hovers in space, at once moving yet clearly not alive. Paired with a moving landscape of a sunrise and sunset in the background, the combination hints at a past era or time cycling, and good existing alongside evil. We are reminded to heed history’s lessons and not destroy our natural world nor ourselves.

Still Life (End And Begin)

P 76, 78-83

P 76, 78-79

P 76, 80-81

P 2, 76, 82-83

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Studio view from the Montello Foundation Residency, May 2019, Montello, NV


Diana Shpungin

Biographies

Diana Shpungin was born in Latvia’s seaside capital of Timeout London, Connaissance des Arts, Le Monde, The Riga under Soviet rule. She immigrated with her family Brooklyn Rail, The Boston Globe and The Miami Herald among others. Her work was the subject of PBS’s to the United States and settled in New York City. Art Assignment, Object Empathy and was cited in the Shpungin’s work has been exhibited extensively in solo introduction to Jerry Saltz’s book Seeing out Louder. and group exhibitions in national and international An extensive hardcover book was published in venues including: The Bronx Museum of Art, Bronx, 2016 documenting Shpungin’s monumental project, NY; Sculpture Center, Long Island City, NY; Drawing Of A House (Triptych). She is a recipient of Bass Museum of Art, Miami, FL; Locust Projects, the 2019/2020 Pollock Krasner Foundation Grant, a Miami, FL; Fieldgate Gallery, London, England; 2017 New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship Futura Center for Contemporary Art, Prague, Czech in Sculpture, and a 2015 and 2020 Emergency Republic; Tomio Koyama Gallery, Tokyo, Japan; Grant from Foundation for Contemporary Arts. She Carrousel du Louvre, Paris, France; Invisible Exports, has been an artist-in-residence at The MacDowell New York, NY; Marc Straus Gallery, New York, NY; Colony, Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, Museum of Contemporary Art, Miami, FL; Brooklyn CEC Artslink, Dieu Donne, Bronx Museum AIM Museum of Art, Brooklyn, NY; Galerie Zurcher, Paris, Program, Art Omi, and The Montello Foundation, France; SiTE:LAB, Grand Rapids, MI; Museum and she will be in residency at The Swatch Art Peace of Contemporary Art, Tucson, AZ; Massachusetts Hotel in Shanghai, China in 2022. Museum of Contemporary Art, North Adams, MA; Shpungin received an MFA from the School of Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum, Ridgefield, CT; Visual Arts, New York, NY, and is currently an an upcoming commissioned scuplture at Franconia Assistant Professor at Parsons: The New School for Sculpture Park, Minneapolis, MN (2021); as well as Design in New York City. She lives and works in a solo exhibition, Always Begin At The End at Smack Williamsburg, Brooklyn, with her two canine studio Mellon, Brooklyn, NY (2022). companions Rhino Lugosi and Pencil. Shpungin’s work has been reviewed in publications such as Artforum, Flash Art, New York Magazine, Art in America, Art Papers, Sculpture Magazine, The New York Times, Timeout New York, Zing Magazine, Bloomberg, dianashpungin.com 91


Lisa D. Freiman

Matthea Harvey

Lisa D. Freiman is a professor at Virginia Commonwealth University’s School of the Arts. She has worked in leadership and curatorial roles in the modern and contemporary art field for over thirty years. Most recently she served as the inaugural director of VCU’s Institute for Contemporary Art and co-curated the opening exhibition Declaration in 2018.

Matthea Harvey is the author of five books of poetry, most recently If the Tabloids are True What Are You?, Of Lamb (an illustrated erasure with images by Amy Jean Porter), Modern Life (a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and a New York Times Notable Book), Sad Little Breathing Machine and Pity the Bathtub Its Forced Embrace of the Human Form.

As Senior Curator and Chair of modern and contemporary art at the Indianapolis Museum of Art (IMA), Freiman developed a dynamic and widelyrecognized program that supported artists’ work through major traveling exhibitions, commissions, acquisitions, and publications.

She has also published two children’s books, Cecil the Pet Glacier, illustrated by Giselle Potter and The Little General and the Giant Snowflake, illustrated by Elizabeth Zechel.

In 2011, the U.S. State Department selected Freiman as the commissioner and curator of the U.S. Pavilion for the 54th International Art Exhibition, la Biennale di Venezia, the oldest international exhibition of contemporary art. Her exhibition Gloria featured six newly-commissioned, site-responsive works by the collaborative duo Allora & Calzadilla. In 2010, Freiman launched 100 Acres: The Virginia B. Fairbanks Art & Nature Park, an expansive project that offered a new model for 21st-century sculpture parks emphasizing experimentation, place-making, and public interaction through changing commissioned artworks. She earned her PhD and MA degrees in modern and contemporary art history from Emory University and has a BA from Oberlin College.

Harvey was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in the Creative Arts in 2017. She teaches poetry at Sarah Lawrence College and lives in Brooklyn, NY.


Richard Klein

Ginger Shulick-Porcella

Richard Klein is a curator, artist, and writer. Since 1999 he has been the exhibitions director of The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum in Ridgefield, CT. In his two-decades-long career as a curator of contemporary art he has organized over 90 exhibitions, including solo shows of the work of Janine Antoni, Sol LeWitt, Mark Dion, Michael Joo, Hank Willis Thomas, Brad Kahlhamer, Roy McMakin, Kay Rosen, Jack Whitten, Jessica Stockholder, Tom Sachs, and Elana Herzog. Major curatorial projects at The Aldrich have included Fred Wilson: Black Like Me (2006), No Reservations: Native American History and Culture in Contemporary Art (2006), Elizabeth Peyton: Portrait of an Artist (2008), Shimon Attie: MetroPAL.IS. (2011), Michael Joo: Drift (2014), Penelope Umbrico: Shallow Sun (2015), and Weather Report (2019).

Ginger Shulick-Porcella currently serves as the Executive Director and Chief Curator of Franconia Sculpture Park in Minnesota. She was previously the Executive Director and Chief Curator of MOCA Tucson, Executive Director and Chief Curator of the San Diego Art Institute, and the Executive Director of Art Connects New York.

As an artist, Klein has exhibited widely at venues including the Neuberger Museum of Art at SUNY Purchase, NY; Caren Golden Fine Art, NY; John Michael Kohler Arts Center, Sheboygan, WI; Hales Gallery, London, England; Gavlak Gallery, Palm Beach, FL; Schoolhouse Gallery, Provincetown, MA; and the Portland Institute of Contemporary Art, Portland, OR. His essays on art and culture have appeared in Cabinet Magazine and have been included in books published by Hatje Cantz, Damiani, Picturebox, Ridinghouse, and the University of Chicago Press, among others.

In addition to curating Diana Shpungin’s exhibition Bright Light/Darkest Shadow, Shulick-Porcella has curated the critically acclaimed exhibitions Cyclic with Cassils and Ron Athey; Blessed Be: Mysticism, Spirituality and the Occult in Contemporary Art; and Dazzled: OMD, Memphis Design and Beyond. She is currently developing Kenny Scharf ’s first touring retrospective and catalogue raisonné. Shulick-Porcella exhibitions have been reviewed in Frieze, The New York Times, and Hyperallergic and in 2015 she was named “Voice of the Year” by The Voice of San Diego. She holds an MA in Socio-Cultural Anthropology from Columbia University, NY, and a BA in Art History from DePaul University, Chicago, IL.

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Acknowledgments

Diana Shpungin would like to extend her deepest appreciation to the following individuals and organizations for their contributions to these works, this exhibition, and this publication. MOCA Tucson Ginger Shulick-Porcella Lisa D. Freiman Richard Klein Matthea Harvey Grant Carmichael The Pollock Krasner Foundation The Foundation for Contemporary Art New York Foundation for the Arts The Aldrich Contemporary Art Musuem The Felix Gonzalez-Torres Foundation The Montello Foundation SiTE:LAB Art Omi

Blane De St. Croix Paul Amenta Ellen Harvey Robert Melee Jane Benson Maria Elena Gonzalez Adriana Farmiga Ryan Hill Eli Burke Wylwyn Reyes Carrie Hess Laura Copelin Emilie Keldie Holly McHugh

All photography courtesy of the artist except: Etienne Frossard – pages 11, 14, 34, 40 JP Westenskow – pages 8, 10 Felix Gonzalez-Torres – page 20

“Untitled” (Loverboy), 1989 Sheer blue fabric and hanging device Dimensions vary with installation Photo: Will Brown Installation view: Felix Gonzalez-Torres. The Fabric Workshop and Museum, Philadelphia, PA. 14 Feb. – 31 Mar. 1994. [In conjunction with Beaver College Art Gallery, Glenside, PA. 14 Feb. – 14 Mar. 1994.] © Felix Gonzalez-Torres Courtesy of The Felix Gonzalez-Torres Foundation

Philippe de Champaigne, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons – page 77

Rachel Gugelberger Sierra Jolly Lily Freedman Lindsay Basile Angelica Vergel Andrea McGinty Vy Trinh Eva Cass Lindsey Shaw Nicholas Elbakidze Vanessa Nefve Avi Saliman Rhino Lugosi HB Pencil Design by Grant Carmichael Copy editing by Rachel Gugelberger Image plate captions by Diana Shpungin Note: During the preparation of this book, the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic emerged which also closed the exhibition to the public prematurely.

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Diana Shpungin

Bright Light / Darkest Shadow MOCA Tucson


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