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Haiti Liberte: Hebdomadaire Haitien / Haitian weekly news

Edition Electronique

Vol. 8, No. 28
Du  Jan  21  au  Jan 27. 2015

Electronic Edition

Kòrdinasyon Desalin: Conférence de presse



Edouard Steinhauer’s Vivid Darkness

by André Juste


Be they trained or outsider types, artists inclined toward the visionary and the mystical are all over the art-historical map. They usually present their mysterious visions as something beyond our immediate realm. Or they insinuate such visions in the everyday world, as if it’s naturally embedded there.

            “In No Strange Land” is a solo exhibit by Edouard Steinhauer at the gallery FiveMyles in Brooklyn. In it, the mystical is something that’s individually engineered and grounded in one’s chosen socio-historical sense of being.

            The entire show is based on the only surviving work by the African-American visionary artist James Hampton, “The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations’ Millennium General Assembly.” A monumental 14-year labor of love (currently in the permanent collection of the Smithsonian), it consists of over 150 pieces of various found objects almost all covered in aluminum foil and presented in a shrine-like installation. If Hampton’s work exudes an awesome presence of spiritual mystery and his deep faith in Christ’s Second Coming, Steinhauer’s exhibit, in contrast, galvanizes such a concern, launching viewers in a dark universe that he himself has aesthetically (re)fabricated and encoded. It’s a marvel that, through his earnest engagement with this chosen realm, he manages both to demystify as well as amplify its mystery.

            Steinhauer achieves this paradoxical demystification, though, partly because he has (wisely) localized, and therefore grounded, the spiritual-mystical in the particular aesthetics of a self-taught artist. Made immanent or politicized as such, the mystical forfeits some of its transcendence.  Five of the six works presented in the show, especially the wall-sized triptych “The Illuminated Throne of the State of Eternity no. 2,” “Winged Beast,” and “The Illuminated Throne […] no. 1,” consist of images or motifs that are, like Hampton’s installation,  foil-wrapped. These include toy-like spacecrafts, winged quadrupeds and other creatures and even a couple of handguns. In the latter photograph, there’s a sense of theatrical opposition and of imminent combat between vestiges of shimmering beings seemingly facing off in the lateral sides of the composition. The staged action takes place as if under a central watchful presence flanked by two gold-handled guns aimed in opposing directions.

             Unlike Hampton’s work, however, the artist uses the foil-wrapped objects seen in the photo-based works as electrical capacitors and conductors. The shimmering lightning-like fringes that seem to streak against the dark background of his pictures result from the artist generating and manipulating electrical discharges or filaments of light emitted by the wrapped objects and then photographing them in complete darkness. By electrifying images that recall Hampton’s shrine, Steinhauer not only affirms and amplifies the mystery he has appropriated but also vouches for it as a viable means of projecting one’s chosen identity in the world.

            That Steinhauer deliberately seeks to establish to some extent a spiritual and brotherly identity with another black artist is of course also evident in the sense of connection suggested by the show’s title, “In No Strange Land.” Born in Haiti, the artist came to the United States at age two and went on to receive his art training from Yale. Having visited his native country several times as a child and as an adult, even attending school there for about three years, he seems rather familiar with Haitian culture and its fantastical art tradition. His compelling “Winged Beast,” one of two smaller magnificent photo-based works in the show, is an existential, frenzied take on the theme of chien pays or (stray Haitian) “country dog” the artist referenced in an exhibited work at the alternative space Exit Art in 1996.

            But the cultural-historical identity that underpins the show is only part of what makes it compelling. Aptly presented in a dimly lit gallery, the overall feel of the works is contemplative but longingly so, quite at ease but open to possibilities. In “The Millennium General Assembly Starship,” the seemingly bulky but actually lightweight radar-like rotor that glints and crowns this large but finely economical sculpture seems able to detect even imperceptible vibes far and wide, not least from the other exhibited works, on which its reflected light flashes. But the entire work, under which viewers could easily walk, seems self-contained, emitting (as in “Winged Beast”) an abiding  stoicism as the rotor’s engine whirs on.

            All in all, the magical beauty – and even the mystery – in the show lies in it’s transparency of means. For instance, in the kinetic piece “Crown # 1,” which somewhat recalls Duchamps’ playful machine “Rotary Glass Plates (Precision Optics),” Steinhauer dispenses with the already deconstructed theatricality with which he conveys the notion of mystery and opts for a more open engagement with it. Here, a simple metal ladder, a couple of light bulbs, a motorized contraption that spins some foil-wrapped spacecrafts and a transparent disc with a lone star glued on it are all that the artist needs to project cyclically  on the gallery wall a sort of shadow film about a space quest to an unreachable star. (Hampton had claimed that the Star of Bethlehem supposedly appeared in 1946 in Washington, DC, where he labored as a daytime janitor and nighttime artist.)

            Steinhauer’s quest is all convincing. But it’s not about attaining a fixed, external goal. Nor is it about acquiescing to the promise of salvation per se. Like the glinting, persistent and surprisingly dissimilar faceted bulks that make up the two sensors of the would-be symmetrical rotor probing the heavens (the only variation in an otherwise thoroughly balanced work) the artist simply insists on the freedom to stand for one’s belief against, as he has written, “our ingrained acceptance of the current ‘global order.’

            It’s this dynamic that lends “In No Strange Land” its reverberating power.

 “In No Strange Land
558 St. Johns Place
Brooklyn, NY 11238
718 783 4438

Vol. 5, No. 39 • du 11 au 17 Avril 2012

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