ESSAYS, INTERVIEWS & REVIEWS
Louise Bourgeois - 2015 - All About Penelope [EN, review],
All About Penelope
Brief conversation with Jerry Gorovoy about Louise Bourgeois
One of our leading galleries, Xavier Hufkens, invites us to discover a selection of Louise Bourgeois’ works (1911-2010). The exhibition of gouaches, watercolours and sewn sculptures is a tour de force. This is the first time that the sculptures, all of which represent blue heads, have been exhibited together. The approach is a museological one, reminding us of the beautiful museum exhibitions created by Ronny Van de Velde in the nineties. The paintings on show comprise three complete series. Anyone who has never seen Bourgeois’ work in the flesh, can catch a glimpse of it in this exhibition. Moreover, journalists were given the opportunity to meet Jerry Gorovoy, Bourgeois’ first assistant for thirty years, as well as the curator and writer Philip Larratt-Smith (b. 1979), the author of the book Louise Bourgeois. The Return of the Repressed. Psychoanalytic Writings. The latter also contributed an essay to the new catalogue published by the gallery.
The fabric heads are sculptural masterpieces. They are constructed of patches around an inner core, which is attached to a base by means of a metal rod. And they are finished with blue fabric patches that are either sewn to the support or to each other. Given this material, their shape is astonishingly accurate. I asked Gorovoy how this was possible. He answered that the fabric used by Bourgeois to finish the sculptures was stretchy, which allowed her to create beautiful, convex surfaces. (Willy Vinck would later inform me that hats are made in the same way.) The gouaches and watercolours are moving, as is almost all of Bourgeois’ work. Here, for example, I am touched by the incredibly tender suggestions of a foetus in the belly of a mother. When Bourgeois is at her best, she is not making art, but allowing us to experience sensations that are unlike anything we have ever felt before, and which are impossible to find elsewhere.
When you are allowed to write about an artist whose work you find moving, but also happen to be a person with a conviction, you unfortunately tend to preach, even when the essence of your belief is that everything is intangible, and that all forms of certitudes are inherently crude. This is unquestionably true if you want to write about someone like Louise Bourgeois, who was not only familiar with psychoanalysis, literature, art history and the works of artists she knew personally, but also made a clear distinction between her own relationship with her work and what it might mean to a potential viewer. For Bourgeois, an artwork was always open. When she spoke about her oeuvre, she would invariably create associations, or weave a web of words and emotions around it, but she would never say what it ‘meant’. It is a point that is lost on a great many authors. They are happy to seek, instead, a ‘meaning’ that can be coupled to a frame of reference, such as psychoanalysis, without realizing that Bourgeois used the very same framework to say nothing. Freud did not believe in symbols with a fixed meaning. It isn’t the dream itself that is revelatory (because the dream-work conceals), but the way in which the patient associates about the dream.
An example: Bourgeois made a large sculpture that resembles a spider. Its legs are beautifully badly welded, in such a way that the slag from the burning process, which in reality weakens a welded structure, has the effect of making them look even more insect-like. Pure sculptural pleasure. Bourgeois called the spider ‘Maman’ and recounted that arachnids patiently repair a damaged web without getting angry, just like her mother, who restored tapestries. We think of Bourgeois’ separation anxiety and the faithful Penelope, who would weave by daylight and unravel her work at night; we also think of Medea, another weaver, and so on and so forth, and so on and so forth. But what is it that stands before us and what do we think and feel? Very few authors share with us what they feel and really think. Isn’t that strange? For what do artists do, if it is not exactly this: sharing what they think or feel about things they have seen or experienced?
Second example: Bourgeois writes somewhere that blue stands for peace, contemplation and an escape route. Larratt-Smith opines that while this is true of the sky blue she mixed in the forties and fifties by adding ochre and white to Prussian blue, there is another ‘meaning’ to the deeper blue shade that we find in these works. In his view, it refers to melancholy. This sounds like a very precise and learned statement, whereas I find it nonsensical.
Third example: one often finds a suspended form in Bourgeois’ Cells that resembles an elongated droplet or pendulous testicle. The shape reminds me of the bone needles made in the stone age, although it doesn’t have to be a needle or something that is ‘needle-like’. (In Destruction of the Father… Bourgeois relates, in her own words, that needles refer to recovery and pins to aggression.) In a brilliant book from 2013, Ulf Küster, who is fascinated by the ‘diversity of meaning’ in Bourgeois’ work, writes that a needle might visualize the connection between the subconscious and the conscious mind.
To my mind, what we see here, is ultimately an indeterminate and open form. How can we create a new, beautiful and recognizable shape that escapes any kind of definition, yet still elicits emotion? This, to me, is the crux of it all. I asked Gorovoy what he thought about this.
‘Her mother had a large pincushion that had the same shape,’ he answered, ‘but it can also be a bludgeon.’
I also asked him what he felt about the insatiable thirst that most authors have for fixed meanings.
‘Larratt-Smith studied Latin and Greek at Harvard,’ he answered. ‘When he visited us in 2002, he was interested in Louise’s texts. I wasn’t. I’d been to art school and was drawn to her visual work. People always want to hear stories. So, Louise told tales about her work. But she never said what it meant. She turned the question around and asked the listener what he or she thought or felt upon seeing a piece. “Art doesn’t need art history,” she always said. Furthermore, she always noted, to her regret, how shockingly few people possess any kind of visual acuity…
When Louise entered the studio in the morning, you could immediately see how she felt. She might cut a large chunk out of something or start working in a very sensitive way. That was what it was all about. She was able to transform her emotions into a specific way of dealing with every possible material. That’s what touches me most in her work.’
Montagne de Miel, 11 September 2015