Thrust Projects

A Novice’s Approach to Viewing Art
and Thrust Projects’ UNHEIM

A view of UNHEIM,
currently on view at Thrust Projects in New York City.
See more views here.

I recently concluded that looking at art is a lot like visiting Staten Island: it really helps to have a guide. Like Staten Island, art does not disclose its secret loveliness to the casual tourist, breezing through the gallery like a Brooklynite through Staten Island en route to the Jersey Shore. To learn to appreciate art – or Staten Island, for that matter – one needs a docent, a guide who knows the lay of the land. I am a docent for Staten Island, but when it comes to art, I need help.

Through my work with International Arts Movement, I have the benefit of knowing many artists and creative catalysts who are willing to give of their time and expertise to help me grow in my approach to viewing art. I have no background in the visual arts, but friends like Mako Fujimura, Dan Siedell, Alison Stigora, Jay Walker and many others have taken time to patiently guide and instruct me in the art of viewing art.

(In addition to these conversations, Fujimura’s books River Grace and Refractions, and Siedell’s book God in the Gallery have been tremendously helpful.)

I have developed for myself an approach to viewing art that makes my trips to galleries and museums a source of delight and stimulation. I hope that, by sharing it here, I might help my fellow art novices have a more meaningful experience the next time they visit an exhibition.

First, I’ve learned that it is important to go into a show humbly. Decide before you walk in the door that you are not going to make quick judgments or dismissals of the works. I find that this is especially important with a lot of modern and contemporary art, which can often give a pedestrian primacy bias. (Warhol’s Soup Cans, for example, might have this effect. It’s easy to think you’re seeing it immediately.) Artists have spent time, energy, contemplation, and resources to create what you are about to see, and curators are deeply invested in what they place on the walls of their spaces. Give them the benefit of the doubt. I was that person who would actually say, aloud, while gazing at a late Jackson Pollock, “I’m not impressed. I could do that. What’s the big deal?”

Listen to me when I say that this is the height of arrogance. Don’t say that. Don’t ever say that.

The second point follows closely on the first: take your time. Do not meander quickly through a gallery or museum and think you have seen the art. If you have meandered quickly, you have not seen the art. Rather, stop in front of the work and gaze – gaze – at the work. Let your eyes rest on the piece for at least a few minutes. Scan it. Stare at it. Tilt your head to the side and stare at it again from a different angle. As in tasting fine wine, swishing the wine around your mouth and across your taste buds, viewing art requires giving your eyes some swishing time. Your eyes are your taste buds when it comes to art. Swish away.

Also, while I encourage people to attend exhibition openings, it is important to point out that the opening of a show is not the time when you will look at, or have a meaningful experience with, the art. The opening is for celebrating the artist. If you want to see the art, go back another day.

Thirdly, make notes. Bring a small notebook and note what you see. For me, this starts with noting the obvious. At my recent visit to Thrust Projects gallery, for example, where I viewed the current UNHEIM exhibition, I wrote in my notebook while standing in front of Valentin Hirsch‘s works on paper, “Elephants. Broken tusks. Multiple trunks. Realistic, but not real. Split, motion, splash. Precise. Landscapes. Mirror image of life and death. Black cloud. Black rain. Tragedy.”

I was describing what I was actually seeing on the paper. Looking at Daniel Domig‘s work in the same exhibition, I wrote, “Human images. Various details – some details, some amoebic. Copulating. Boxing. Violence. Human and skeleton dancing? No, having sex against a wall. Shrouded head. Woman performing fellatio on a man’s very large – phallic – nose, as an idea in a man’s head. Erotic. Uncomfortable.”

On the Subject

• UNHEIM, featuring works on paper by Valentin Hirsch and Daniel Domig, runs May 29-July 19, 2009, at Thrust Projects, 114 Bowery, Suite 301 in New York City. For more information, visit

‚Ä¢ See a previous Curator article on Daniel Domig’s work.

This is not yet getting into what the work is saying. This is just what I am seeing. But as I wrote what I saw, I began to “see” more. Getting beyond the obvious discernible images, I began to draw some conclusions (which may or may not be what the artist intended, but by this point the artist is no longer in the picture; it’s about the art itself and the viewer’s experience of that art, or so Dan Siedell tells me.)

The last thing I do during a gallery visit is to walk back through the art one last time and do word association, writing down every word that comes to mind as I view the art. It was during this stage of my time with UNHEIM that the collaboration between two very different artists came together in a unified way: the words I was associating with each of their work were the same. Surreal… destruction… violence… haunting… tragedy… conflict… struggle… These words describe the “story” I “read” during my visit with both Domig and Hirsch’s work.

At this point, I have engaged with the art on a deep level. I am ready to describe my experience. The story I read went something like this:

The work is deeply disturbing. Hirsch’s work makes me think of how elephants are so regal and strong, yet vulnerable. The landscapes remind me of Africa, and the poaching of elephants going on there. This reminds me of the bigger issues facing global humanity, where the stewarding of the land that was mandated in Genesis 1 and 2 has become badly perverted. Looking at one particular portrait of an elephant head, drawn very regally, but with broken tusks and eyes that are indiscernible, lost to shadows, I was stirred to sadness, in the same way I am when I see an elephant in a circus. This was not what elephants were created for. They were made to be kings; instead, we have made them clowns. These pieces speak to me of destruction and tragedy. But Hirsch is not talking about elephants here. Elephants are a metaphor for something else, I’m sure. As I think further about the kings/clowns idea, I think of humanity. Is humanity what it was created to be? Not by a long shot. We were made in God’s image to be kings and queens. Instead, we are clowns. Worse, we are slaves.

Domig’s work is likewise evocative of sadness and longing, but not in quite the same way. In his work, there is a wrestling match between reality and the psyche. Some images remind me of a passage in the Bible, where St. Paul says, “Who will save me from this body of death?” There is a sense of being weighed down by an unseen burden, or enslaved by something intangible, yet very real. I see in many of the images a clear man, a central character of the piece, but with ideas or fantasies or struggles that inhibit him from being fully alive. He, too, is a slave, perhaps to his past, or to his memories, or to his unfettered animal instincts that threaten to dehumanize him. He is haunted by something he can’t quite shake.

Both artists’ work caused me to think deeply about the human condition – and not just humanity in general, but my own humanity. Am I living as the royalty I was created to be? Or am I living as a slave? Do I have a monkey on my back, or have I managed to throw aside everything that has entangled me? Do I continue to dance with a “body of death,” or do I take my thoughts and imagination captive to that which is good, true, and beautiful?

Viewing art is a very personal experience, if you will let it be so. But like many vessels of beauty or truth, there is no Reader’s Digest version. Without spending time with the work, you might walk gaily through the gallery, muttering to yourself “I don’t get it,” because you simply didn’t give the art an opportunity to give “it” to you. I spent nearly two hours with approximately thirty small works on paper, and the experience I had was profound. What a gift art is, if we will receive it as such.

With All the Things

The press release for Daniel Domig’s exciting new exhibition With all the Things We Build and Make (Thrust Projects, New York City, September 5 – October 12) states the following:

The complexity of the figures, part human, part animal, reference Christian iconography and relates to the existential facets of man in the concrete world. Domig’s interest lies in the possibilities of expanding the dialogue of presenting painting within new environments, where elements (figures, landscapes) relinquish their independence accepting their abstract nature within the canvas.

At first glance, it’s not at all clear what this might mean. How do elements relinquish and accept anything? Is this just one more bloated, incomprehensible bit of gallery-drivel? One might be tempted to think so. Yet, when one actually engages the pieces and considers Domig’s interest in the time-honored religious concept of “the Creator/Creature distinction,” it all becomes clear. Domig’s figures serve as analogues to himself, not in a clichéd, autobiographical way, but in the raw, existential dimension.

As Christian tradition has it, humans are created beings, and lose their bearings the minute they begin to conceive of themselves as the Creator (“ye shall be as gods,” the serpent whispered, according to the Genesis account). However, it’s clear that humans are creators of a sort, made in God’s image, carrying on His creative work in the world. There’s a challenge there, a reflexive calling, for humanity to create without losing sight of “createdness.” Humans are to see themselves as distinct from God, yet wholly dependent upon Him, working and doing His work. St. Paul said it this way: “…He is not far from each one of us. In Him we live, and move, and have our being…” (Acts 17:27b-28a)

This theme literally pulses in and out of Domig’s exhibition, as if the systolic and diastolic rhythms of the human life were nothing less than alternating considerations of autonomy/dependence dichotomy. Figures move into concrete materiality, and slip back out again, lost in abstract, shadowy brushstrokes and smudged patches of mixed color. Process emerges as a prominent theme in Domig’s work, but this is not the sterile, lifeless reflexivity of late modernism. There is a hopeful search here, a question, left hanging from the unfinished clause of the exhibition’s title (“with all the things we build and make…” what?).

A survey of Domig’s earlier work articulates a theme that continues to emerge in his work today: the miracle of animation in the work. It may be process, lines, paint, smudges, but it is also something being born and inhaling. Sometimes it feels like something dying, and exhaling. But it’s always a liminal state.

In the case of the ceramic sculpture that announces the exhibition, we see a detail human face descend (or ascend?) into primitive, pressed clay. It is at once refined, surreal, and primitive, a bit like Adam, freshly minted from the dust.

Dull grays, blacks, and browns dominate the works, but nearly every painting-somewhere-features an alarming, aggressive color, often in form of a small line, or detail. It’s not as if these colors vie with the darkness, however. Domig, remarkably, establishes them as co-existent, part and parcel of his eclectic work. This eclecticism leans toward a two-dimensionality, and so we might be tempted to consider Domig in the tradition of collage, but, in fact, his work subtly oscillates in depth. For instance, the striking figure in The Best Show (2007) gives us a square canvas, and a painted frame, and figure that seems at once behind the frame and in front of it, a cellophane-like membrane inhibiting all but his hands. The bright green lines piercing in from the edges to the center create a tension with the largely grey underworld that resides at the painting’s core. We might also note the subject’s eyes are obscured, a common element in Domig’s work. The painting does not revel in surface, as in much postmodern collage. Nor does it reach for the alluring, eroticized two-dimensional ornamentation found in the work of Domig’s Austrian predecessor Gustav Klimt. Rather, we see an existential dimension about to reveal itself. It is here, hovering on the edge of full existence, that the figure negotiates with being, autonomy, and its own process of becoming.

Sheer “becoming” as an “event,” is the sort of thing that excited Gilles Deleuze about Francis Bacon’s work, and we see something of that primal energy here. But Domig sees this concept in a wider frame, that of his own becoming within the Christian view of sanctification. Though it is misleading to see Domig’s pieces as intensely auto-biographical, some works grant us permission in that direction.

Within Tradition strikes such a reflective, self-conscious note, as the painting-within-the-painting theme manifests itself here as a man turned cabinet of curiosities. He’s at once a canvas himself, slipping into (or out of?) three dimensional materiality, the edges of his face spreading outward like newly cracked egg. He holds his paintings dear, carefully fixed under clasped hands, but we cannot avoid the suggestion, amid all that red, that we are witnessing an anatomy lesson, a flayed and open soul, and a shadow of a man holds center stage within him. Even that negative figure is upheld, however, by a mysterious third hand, white as milk, transparent as sky. We are clearly invited to see these paintings as illustrative of the figure’s interior world, and, by extension, Domig’s own creative struggle.

In a remarkably prescient observation, the art scholar Velton Wagner connects this arrangement of paintings with an altar screen in a Christian church.1 Indeed, the mode of expression, while intensely dark and personal in the painting and more ecumenical/historical in a church, does achieve a common goal: to unite the small stories, and fragments of stories, into a larger whole. That the paintings detail contradictory things is simply to tell the truth about the contradictions of human nature. To unite them is to create a man, and, perhaps, chart a large meta-story of redemption, as in this altarpiece from the chapel of Schloss Mittersill, Austria, a sacred space Domig has frequented throughout his life.

Indeed, one of the show’s most interesting dimensions is the exhibition design itself, envisioned and constructed by the artist himself. Again, it is process exposed, but animated. Rough, wooden figures watermarked and unsanded, are stitched together in a rustic fellowship: wooden frames/bodies, with painted heads atop each, framed by an “X”/cross pattern not unlike the saint depicted in the altarpiece above. To accommodate this unorthodox presentation, some paintings had to be placed sideways in the torsos of these figures. This creates a tension for those who wish to view the work cleanly, but Domig doesn’t permit such clinical niceties. Like the man in Within Tradition, they are contained and held in a body that may or may not be willing to release them.

The artist’s product does, in the end, stand apart from the artist. The moment a work is declared done, it is relinquished to public interpretation, never to be fully pulled back. Domig’s figures are, indeed, autonomous, as the exhibition’s flyer describes. But they slip in and out of materiality, as if to nod back to their creator, in deference. Domig confesses, here, that he continues to struggle with the autonomy/dependence question, and so his work is shot through with spiritual references and insinuations that never quite reach a full resolution. And that’s to our benefit, as the best work emerges from that tension.

The show runs until October 12.

From the website:

Jane Kim/ Thrust Projects is pleased to announce the second solo exhibition of Daniel Domig, entitled With all the Things We Build and Make, a new installation encompassing large and small paintings in a circular, free-standing wooden structure. By making the painting process a form of construction, Domig continues his research into the materiality of objects. The substance for the paintings as well as the installation is the interaction between space and figure in which boundaries both embrace and separate. The emphasis between form and content becomes less about one definitive meaning as the works serve as a fill-in and fenestration to the unoccupied space in the structure, allowing the viewer to peer into Domig’s artistic self and world views from the inside. The complexity of the figures, part human, part animal, reference Christian iconography and relates to the existential facets of man in the concrete world. Domig’s interest lies in the possibilities of expanding the dialogue of presenting painting within new environments, where elements (figures, landscapes) relinquish their independence accepting their abstract nature within the canvas.

Daniel Domig (b. 1983) is a graduate of the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna. His 2006 debut solo exhibition Don’t ask for a name now, maybe you’ll find it later at Thrust Projects was reviewed in (Critic’s Pick, Oct 9, 2006). Recent exhibitions include his first one-person museum show, Daniel Domig: Neither Fear nor Courage Saves us, Museum Engen, Germany, accompanied by a catalogue (edited Städtisches Museum Engen + Galerie, 2008) and Daniel Domig: BEASTBODYBREATHING, Galerie Karol Winiarczyk, Vienna. He lives and works in Vienna.

1 From the essay “Transfigurations,” in the catalog Daniel Domig: Neither Fear Nor Courage Saves Us (Engen, Germany: Städtisches Museum Engen, 2008).