Helène Aylon & Colette Lumiere
On ViewKerry Schuss
November 5, 2021 – January 22, 2022
Notes on Baroque Living
November 20, 2021 – February 12, 2022
Part coincidence, part expediency: I saw Helène Aylon’s (1931–2020) current exhibition, Reflections, at Kerry Schuss Gallery in Tribeca immediately before heading to the opening of Colette Lumiere’s show at Company Gallery’s new Elizabeth Street location. The latter, curated by Kenta Murakami, is vividly titled Notes on Baroque Living: Colette and Her Living Environment, 1972–1983. I have known both artists for decades. Their works and installations, their methods and practices couldn’t be more different. The substance of their art, measured by aesthetic, cultural, and ideological goals, seems unrelated; some might call them antagonistic. Had I not seen the exhibitions in the sequence I did, I might never have thought of Colette and Helène in the same breath, much less in the same hemisphere of my brain.
Both artists came to public recognition in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Both have foundations in the complex, multivalent art world of the time. At least, so it seemed. The 1970s were often branded as “pluralistic,” a term used to imply the difficulty of consigning much then-current art to the teleology of “forward” stylistic development. In that decade, the works of many emerging artists rejected conformity to the sequential suffix-driven “isms” that had become art historical cornerstones, retreading instead prefixes like the ubiquitous “post-” and “neo-.” So here I go, trying to compare, contrast, perhaps elucidate the output of two individuals at what had been dubbed the “end of art history,” using a similarly atavistic, inherently forced pairing: that old-time, if eternal, slide show.
Helène Aylon’s show at Schuss includes a group of her “Elusive Silver” paintings made during the 1970s of Plexiglas, industrial paint, and aluminum. These were purposely produced to change slowly over time by the chemical and physical processes engendered by their materials and construction. The centerpiece of the Schuss presentation is a monumental eleven-part work from the series “Mirror Coverings” of 1987. It was made as a memorial to what Helène considered the eleven million victims of the Holocaust, including LGBTQ+, Roma, and other marginalized prey. Of human scale, it symbolically refers to the Jewish tradition of covering the mirrors in the homes of mourners, so their egos do not interfere with focus on the memory of the deceased. Helène’s early work was categorized as post-minimal and process-driven. Between these two different periods, Helène moved to add human performative practices (and other personal collaborations) in the actual creation—including assembly and collection—of her output. Notably, this featured in her “Breakings” of the late 1970s, which germinated—or were “birthed” as she called them—in performances with fellow artists and curators who participated as “midwifes.” Darrel Ellis, David Ross, Hannah Wilke, and Nancy Spero were among the actors in her studio/delivery room. Once birthed, the “Breakings” shared Helène’s earlier strategy of being made to transform, to metamorphose with time. Though such birthing operations were studio—or institution-based, the resulting works were shown mainly in commercial galleries, including those of the legendary Betty Parsons uptown and Max Hutchinson in SoHo. The “Elusive Silver” series was fabricated as Plexiglas sandwiches composed of paper, spray paint, and mixed media; the “Breakings” used standard art materials like linseed oil and canvas. Each series produced works with evanescent results. These stand in sharp contrast with Colette’s highly crafted, yet purposefully mangy confections of cloth, paper, yards of tulle, meters of trim, and artificial light. Colette’s works might be considered more temporally and sensorially transportive than Aylon’s visual, psychic, and spiritual transcendence.
Colette’s installations often included the presentation of herself or handmade stand-ins, three-dimensional self-portraits. They were shown at such far-reaching venues as the weather-beaten attic galleries of PS1’s early years, the store windows of hipster designer shop Fiorucci on East 59th Street, and at artist-darling Victoria Falls on Spring Street in Soho. The latter was a Victorian-era-focused vintage emporium also selling goods by emerging designers. Colette’s individual works, schemes, and exuberant large-scale installations might be described best using critic-du-jour Robert Pincus-Witten’s playful moniker: Maximalism. As installations, they were stage sets sometimes made for events such as her sleeping—a sort of “lying in state”—in Fiorucci’s shop windows. Her smaller three-dimensional boxed assemblages resembled 18th century peep shows through which viewers could imagine themselves conveyed to another time and place, to another sense of reality.
Considered together, can one reasonably query these singular artists’ mutual interest in monochrome? The silver greys and brunaille-tinged off-whites of Helène’s layered paintings hint at landscape and insist on contemplation; Colette’s breathy pastel confections read near neutral and suggest a bygone fashion, the toilette, and an ineffable, but ahistorical past. Helène’s transcendent anywhere contrasts with Colette’s temporally frozen, unknowable once-upon-a-time. The “Mirror Coverings” point to religious tradition and act as abstracted, if still allusive, memorials. Colette’s slavish dressmaker-like concoctions, which blend backdrops of purposefully frivolous, almost-wearable yardage, seem to cry out for nuptial-like festivity that borders on the carnivalesque. It’s as if Colette invited viewers to Miss Havisham’s attic, improbably prepared for a playful, frowzy gala. As in Jacques Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffmann (1881) the artist goes back and forth between the use of her mechanical doll stand-in and her living, breathing incarnation of the femme fatale. Yet this installation is also enticed by the more material trappings of death, recalling Colette’s performances between 1978 and 1983 when she staged and re-staged her own passing and reincarnation as the fictional Justine.
Important in such a comparative reading is how each artist lives within contrived yet continuously evolving personae. This was of course the foundation of Colette’s art from her early forays attempting to live with and embody the self-invented personage. Colette lives as a character-type and dresses like a demi-mondaine from the late 19th century. She becomes such historical heroines as the divine Sarah Bernhardt, Joan of Arc, the traitor Mata Hari, the totally concocted Bavarian Countess Reichenbach, as well as Colette’s own “resurrected” self as the imaginary Justine. For Colette, artist and character become fused, fantasy and reality conjoined, fact and fiction confused. Over the decades Aylon had evolved a more singular persona, in part by the way she dressed, in part by her attitude toward art and society. Her standard form of dress included a nearly floor-length caftan with a pseudo-turban head covering, which called to mind a biblical matriarch or prophet.
To accommodate such lived personae, both artists lived under pseudonyms. Colette’s abundant pseudonyms are enumerated above. Aylon created a new name for herself as an artist, around age 30, after the premature death of her husband. Photographed in the 1970s for a newspaper article, she dropped her married name, Fisch, and on the spot invented a new surname, Aylon, the Hebrew equivalent of her first name. Each practice may be best framed by a contrast with other artists of this time. Lynn Hershman Leeson offers a counterpoint to Colette in her carefully crafted character Roberta Breitmore. Leeson keeps a clear space between who she is as an artist/creator and the character she has so carefully fabricated. But the artist and the alter-egos become one for Colette. Do Colette’s self-professed “[self] rip-offs” anticipate appropriation avant-la-lettre? Helène bears comparison with the work of the like-minded, ritually penetrating feminist Anna Mendieta; both in their own ways wrestle a patriarchy as they lean into their spiritual backgrounds, Mendieta with Taino tradition and Aylon with traditional Judaism. Both Mendieta and Aylon share a joint preoccupation with the primal, physical nature of the earth as the basis for the world and civilization, as well as privileging it as a material for making their art. Fittingly, both Aylon and Colette, albeit representing entirely different modes of seeing and being, seem likewise to aim to eliminate “the gap between art and life” in which Robert Rauschenberg so famously tried to cultivate his art.