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A Tale of Two Openings: Elizabeth Jaeger and Tishan Hsu

On a clear evening the October light in New York sweeps its arms around you and swings you through the air. If you’re brave enough to ride a bicycle in the city around sunset when gallery openings take place, consider yourself the luckiest human on the planet.

I often think back to my childhood during this time of year. Maybe it’s that memory of being outside and playing so hard in the crisp air before being called in to dinner. Maybe it’s that gorgeous light that makes you want to weep. Two shows tonight brought back an innocence and its opposite, the pain and sensuality of being an adult: Tishan Hsu’s Skin-Screen-Grass at Miguel Abeu and Elizabeth Jaeger’s Holes at Jack Hanley.

Let’s start with the second opening I saw. I arrived at Jack Hanley after weaving my way from Chinatown to Tribeca--biking against traffic at times, avoiding oncoming vehicles and humans attached to their phones, knocking over traffic cones to get around cars. The joy far surpassed the effort. Once I arrived, gobsmacked by the light in Jack Hanley I wondered if I was in the right place. Was this the opening I was supposed to attend? There were cages spread around the gallery floor. Had the team missed its deadline? Upon closer inspection, there were nest-like vessels on top of each cage. As I drew nearer each vessel had an oculus that revealed miniature scenes inside.

I found the work clever. Not necessarily work that I needed to visit with for very long, but their power stayed with me. There were three nests or vessels that moved me the most. In Zoom Zoom a child alone playing with some sort of man doll. Could it be a GI Joe? And on the opposite side of the nest, a girl doll in a car. Barbie Dream’vette anyone? This one--the child on his stomach, the girl objects just out of reach, a fissure in the vessel itself,

the gallery light emanating up from the crack--I connected to the most because for a moment I remembered being that child. Of being alone and desperately wanting to do things that were forbidden, just out of reach, and almost sulking with having to be alone with things that you didn’t really want. OK, so perhaps childhood wasn’t all innocence and light. What struck me the most with this particular sculpture was how delicate the boy’s feet were molded, the care Jaegar took with sculpting such an affecting scene. The child seems fluid to me, so the implications of gender norms and their impact on children really stood out.

I also gravitated toward Nest. A mama bird on one side, and her two offspring far away on the opposite side. I for one think of bird families nestling very close to each other. Is Jaegar signaling the complicated feelings a mother might have with her children, wanting desperately to protect and nourish them, but at the same time needing her own space and time? I also found Horseplay with similar themes. It held two horses alongside a trough and what looked like Legos (again transporting me back to childhood). The narrative that played in my head with the horses: mother and son perhaps, with the mother either dead or just plain tired from all the responsibility thrust upon her, lying there shocked. Or if we take the title literally, maybe she’s just acting to play with her child.

These cages are prisons we either put ourselves in or were thrust upon us. That high rise apartment we just needed to have, that corner office in the skyscraper that we thought would give us power, that school our parents made us attend to get us along further in life. And on these towers that we build, we often find ourselves isolated and lonely. How do we even climb out?

One way out of course is death, and a large sculptural piece in Mr Hsu’s show reminded me of this component of life. More on that later.

I arrived super early to the opening, the sole viewer of the show. How delicious to be alone in a gallery. Scratch that. Also Hsu himself was ambling around. Me watching him as a viewer, as if seeing the work for the first time felt like a priceless moment for another artist to witness. Serendipitously, I found a voyeuristic element in the work.

Miguel Abreu has one of the best gallery spaces in New York. Its spaciousness and walls disallow one to take one energetic pulse check of a show, and that’s part of the space’s genius. I felt cold from the work at first. The paintings seemed like solely prints, but moving closer, you see the sculptural elements, the mix of materials, and that’s before you understand the concept. Hsu creates paintings on wood using both printing, like in Breath 3, and oil, like in signal.noise/membrane, combined with silicone and alkyd elements. The more time spent interacting with the work, the more attached you become to their energy--much like a relationship, especially a relationship to technology. Many of the works created a sexual reaction in me, some more literally, like the open mouths, painted orifices, and nipple images in some of the prints. And the silicon elements in the paintings, some thrust out at us, some delicately embedded like nipples or skin, create both a distance to our bodies and a reminder of their power. Together these elements can collaborate to create so much: ecstasy, explosions, addictions, traumas.

Since the 1980s Hsu has created works about the disappearing lines between human bodies and technology. As a pre-teen I myself became attached to technology and sex, watching Cinemax After Dark movies on a television screen, sometimes recording scenes (on VHS no less) and rewatching them. It created at first a distance between myself and my body, but in doing so I eventually became closer to my own sexuality. Hsu has created a show that brought back many of those sensations felt as a child that I’m now realizing are still present, ever pervasive, much like technology.

At the end of the exhibition a sculpture Phone/Breath/Bed sits amongst two paintings Breath 3 and to be titled. The sculpture resembles a hospital bed housing a fragmented figure, silicon parts embedded in the mattress along with a chest x-ray image and a photograph of old eyes, and silicon cavernous vessels and a face hover on glass above. It reminds me of my dying father in the hospital, all his body parts siloed. Phone/Breath/Bed frames the sculpture on a nearby wall and features a print of a photograph by Jeenah Moon. “Gold Spa” hovers like an advertisement for a place to relax and rest surrounded by the weaving net matrix prevalent in many of Skin-Screen-Grass’s works. As it wasn’t the case for my father, perhaps one day the hospital can be the final spa for everyone. A place where one’s body can rest and relax, meet technology and become one with the infinite without any FOMO or guilt about past deeds.

A pair of drawings become a respite from the heavier works. Grey Zone-4 with its playful colors is the best. Watchful eyes, that prevalent matrix, and dark marks that might be remnants of touching. Most interesting in the drawing is the hand mark on the surface beside a screen displaying a pair of lips, as if someone had tried to kiss those lips with passion, like practicing to kiss on a mirror or your hand as a child, and getting so lost in the play that you forget you’re making it all up.

This show reminds us that we’re all just making it up as we go along, and technology can be a tool or a hindrance to utilizing that magical spirit we had as a child. If we can tap into that energy, that curiosity and exploration, even sporadically, before we die, then we’re damn lucky. I suppose that’s why being an artist is so great, and Mr Hsu embodies that spirit both in his work and in person.

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