By Chris Lane
By Olivia Flores Alvarez
By Angelica Leicht
By Jef Rouner
By Jef With One F
By Jef With One F
By Marco Torres
In French artist Gina Pane's work of self-injury and endurance, Action Escalade non-anesthésiée (Action Non-anaesthetized Climb) (1971), the artist repeatedly climbed a metal frame with jagged bits welded to the horizontal rungs. At the opening, I discussed Pane's work with a friend who was in art school at the time of Pane's 1971 piece. Today there is general awareness of victims of abuse injuring themselves as a way to process overwhelming or horrifying emotions, but as my friend pointed out, that wasn't part of public consciousness at the time. For her, work like Pane's stemmed from that era's violence and unrest. Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated the same year as France's May '68 protests, the 1970 slaughter of Kent State students had just happened and the war in the former French colony of Vietnam was raging.
The "Climb" action is documented in the show by photos of the artist climbing the metal "ladder" to the point of exhaustion. The photographer was the only witness. The structure itself is on view next to the photos. Pane's work seems like the confluence of the personal and the political. She was born in France in 1939 — along with WWII. Her mother was Austrian and her father Italian; she grew up in Italy, coming to France to study in 1960. It's worth noting that a number of the self-mutilating Vienna Actionists were born within a year of her.
Did Pane's work really shock people out of their complacency? I doubt it. While a conceptual argument can be made for the self-inflicted violence in performance works, I think its origins lie in the personal psychology of the artist. Self-inflicted violence like Tunisian vendor Mohamed Bouazizi's self-immolation out of anger and frustration at the injustice he faced helped trigger the Arab Spring, but even this most extreme form of political protest rarely yields results. A mother of four just set herself ablaze in Tibet to protest Chinese rule, the 110th Tibetan to do so. Whatever the artist's intent, today self-harm in the context of art has become commodified, voyeuristic and trivialized.
5216 Montrose Blvd.
Houston, TX 77006
"Parallel Practices: Joan Jonas & Gina Pane"
Through June 30. Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, 5216 Montrose, 713-284-8250.
Some of Pane's works have a heavily Roman Catholic overlay, like the blood and thorns seen in the photographs of Constat d'action for Azione Sentimentale (Sentimental Action) (1973). Pane artistically inserted a line of rose thorns into her forearms and then cut her palms for stigmata-esque effect. The artist wears white and it's all very stylishly done, without any of the baroque gore of the Viennese Actionists. The piece was delicately planned out by Pane in a series of drawings. It seems very personal and contemplative.
Pane's video Action Little Journey (1977) has some wittily poetic moments in it. In one scene, she holds a tiny cutout of a sailboat up to the camera and blows on its sails. In another, she flies a paper silhouette of an airplane to the sun, where it falls like Icarus. Photos of early actions like Pane's attempt to bury a ray of sunlight or her later 1984-85 wall piece abstracting the Paolo Uccello painting of St. George slaying the dragon have a similar thoughtful elegance. Prior to this show, I had seen only the more sensationalistic of Pane's works, and I was pleased to see a broader range of her artistic production.
I'm interested in seeing work from these two artists, but I don't know that pairing them brings great insight to either. The very recent work from Jonas throws the balance off. The curatorial essay is forthcoming, so maybe I'm missing something. Finding new angles and comparing and contrasting work can be interesting when two artists' work is widely known, but it's difficult when it isn't. For me, and I'll assume some others, Parallel Practices is the most I have seen of Pane and Jonas's work in one place. I just want to see more. Each is worthy of her own retrospective.