Arts & Culture

Hassenfeld humanizes the hysterical

By
Arts & Culture Editor
Sunday, September 13, 2009

At the heart of the David Winton Bell Gallery exhibit “Kirsten Hassenfeld: Recent Sculpture” is a massive installation called “Dans la Lune.” Artist Hassenfeld has said she associates the work with the French title’s idiomatic meaning — it connotes “head in the clouds” or “daydreaming” — but the literal translation, “in the moon,” seems equally appropriate. These sculptures, made almost entirely of white paper, plainly evoke the cold beauty of the lunar surface.

Calling the installation “massive” is probably misleading. The centerpieces of “Dans la Lune” are low-hanging chandeliers shaped liked onion domes from Russian cathedrals, each with a teardrop of light in the middle, and though they are huge, they don’t look heavy. Rather, they exude lightness.

Foamcore frames provide structure and accentuate the overall airiness. To flesh out these skeletons, Hassenfeld constructs a vast repertoire of paper forms: simple linked-paper chains, like the pallid remnants of a birthday party; crystals and geodes; cameo drawings that invoke jasperware designs on 18th-century Wedgwood ceramics; and tiny figures, even. A lantern-shaped container, dangling from one of the chandeliers, holds a minute paper woman in a gown holding a stylized cow on a leash. The leash is made up of ringlets, each only a few millimeters in diameter, as precise and exquisite as the tableau itself is enigmatic.

“Dans la Lune” is tied together by repeated forms — elegant S-curves and the human face in profile, for example — and a general interest in the intersection of the monumental and the decorative, the durable and the delicate.

These concerns carry over to the series of works that opens the exhibit, Hassenfeld’s newer “Blueware.” These sculptures are smaller than the ones in “Dans la Lune” but equally exuberant. The basic unit in each piece is a rolled-up cocoon of paper, colored blue with ink and lacquered for a sticky sheen. These are then strung together and layered into objects that conjure up — with their blue-and-white color scheme and the association of “ware” with objects for use — the ineffable loveliness of Delft porcelain.

Hassenfeld gives these sculptures titles such as “Garden,” “Espalier” and “Bouquet,” continuing the game she plays in “Dans la Lune.” In the latter work, she melds positive and negative space, using the chandelier as her jumping-off point. In “Blueware,” the mixing of forms from nature — albeit a cultivated, deliberate kind of nature — and domestic tropes accomplishes a similar confusion of interior and exterior.

If these objects were flawlessly executed, all of this florid New Rococo would be precious and cloying. Hassenfeld corrects for this by making her sculptures look handmade but, luckily, doesn’t go so far in the opposite direction that her work looks homemade. The joints in the “Blueware” pieces sometimes don’t quite fit, making for wonky, off-kilter connections, and the decorative drawings in “Dans la Lune” are obviously clumsy.

Yet somehow, paradoxically, all of this studied childishness produces a feeling of maturity. Hassenfeld’s sculptures, with their wild excesses and self-conscious imperfections, project a sense of self-awareness of, and comfort with, their own idiosyncrasy. In other words, these elaborate works of hysterical furniture are also, in their own way, surprisingly human.