Kahn + Selesnick : Dreams of the Drowning World
Sep 24 – Nov 7, 2015
With “Dreams of the Drowning World,” Robischon Gallery presents its fifth solo exhibition from the widely-recognized, collaborative New York artist duo Nicholas Kahn and Richard Selesnick. As a continuation of the arresting narrative begun in Kahn + Selesnick’s “Truppe Fledermaus and the Carnival at the End of the World,” the newest installment in the series, “Dreams of the Drowning World,” is an epilogue to the tale of the fictional, travelling theater troupe that performed plays at the edge of the world for no one. Evocative of a dissociated, dream-like state the Truppe characters have found themselves immersed, literally and figuratively, in the world’s rising waters. Kahn + Selesnick offer license to the viewer to interpret the series’ many-layered and complex meanings, as each imaginative work reveals a melding of vast and varied influences from human history through cultural references of art and literature, politics and events within the natural world. In this most current series, Kahn + Selesnick allude to the masterwork of John Everett Millais’ Ophelia, a painting inspired by Shakespeare’s Hamlet, as well as the dramatic occurrences of the 2011 Japanese earthquake and subsequent tsunami, New Orleans’ Hurricane Katrina and the Netherland’s ever shifting sea in the midst of a warming planet. All are referenced to further express a climate of fear both pervasive and cautionary which exists in each Kahn + Selesnick’s fictional tale and permeates the contemporary world.
As Kahn + Selesnick’s highly personal and dynamic visual lexicon continues to merge with art history, the artists’ imagery intentionally recalls the quick and fading floral forms of 17thC Dutch vanitas paintings, Rembrandt and the posed photographs of Julia Margaret Cameron. Further nodding to Millais’ Ophelia, each Kahn + Selesnick model featured in “Dreams of the Drowning World” was carefully costumed and then submerged into a marshy wetland with select objects of import while photographed from above in the artists’ signature, hard-won cinematic approach.
In the extended tale of “Truppe Fledermaus,” the animals for whom the Truppe once exclusively performed, are now shown as dripping and battered taxidermy specimens clutched or floating as talismans from a world adrift; transmuted perhaps into a meditative Buddhist bardo state. With eyes closed, as if in death or a transcendent state of surrender – or with eyes open, as if in attention or wonderment or shock – the reposed Truppe figures are surrounded by the ruined material objects of their lives such as musical instruments, poetry books, luggage and various curiosities such as toy ships, porcelain doll appendages and the surrounding masses of botanical specimens. Kahn + Selesnick’s arched-top photographs offer a reverent view of these solitary figures. Contained in black and white or vivid saturated hues, the contoured images hint at a kind of stained-glass window effect with their presence – not as a reflection of religious figures per say, but as a weighted arena in which the sacred, devotional or seductive is expressed amidst a disordered nature-gone-wrong environment. The photographs teem with plentitude of a different sort – an impending danger such as the colorful toxic mushrooms or the series’ winged doomed portent: a bat with white-nose bat fungus. And yet, a potentiality seems to simultaneously exist within the series with its lavish and lush vibrant greenery and flowers in full bloom. The artists’ hopeful and colorful apricot-laden branches, open blossoms and fresh fennel bulbs call attention to an irrevocable positive impulse just beneath the surface – even as humankind increasingly renders the planet unlivable. Further layered within the photographs is the image of a mare’s pelvis. Its symbol of the life-bearing female form perhaps poetically suggests that an opportunity for rebirth remains if humankind fully awakens to the reality of a world of watery ruins.
Equally beautiful and nightmarish, the floating dream states of Kahn + Selesnick inspire deeply imaginative, if cautionary, contemplation. Their surreal worlds offer both peculiarly conscious and alarmingly prescient views of the natural world where the fury unleashed by human endeavor looms large. As each photograph tells its layered story, the viewer is encouraged to subsequently retell and further embellish upon its range of meanings, enabling a deeper continuing and personal revelation. As with all of the artists’ extensive series such as “City of Salt” and “Eisbergfreistadt,” the works thrive somewhere between grand fiction and fact. Kahn + Selesnick’s malleable and at times seemingly prophetic offerings call the engaged viewer toward seeking a higher interpretation as the artists’ distinctive and influential expression consistently speaks to not only what is universal in the world, but aspirational, as well.
Graduates of Washington University at St. Louis, Kahn + Selesnick have been awarded artist residencies at Addison Gallery of American Art, Andover, Massachusetts; the Djerrasi Artist Program, Woodside, California; and Toni Morrison’s Atelier Program at Princeton University, New Jersey. Their work has been shown in more than eighty solo exhibitions throughout the US and Belgium and in group exhibitions in China, France, Germany Monaco, and Norway. Museum Exhibitions include: Brooklyn Museum of Art, Smithsonian Institution, Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Photography and Field Museum, Overbeck-Gesellschaft, Lübeck, Germany and Cape Cod Museum of Art. Their work is in the permanent collections of the LA County Museum of Art, Boston Public Library, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Fogg Museum of Art, National Portrait Gallery, and Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Their latest commissioned series, “Mars Revisited,” features and uncanny resemblance between certain terrestrial terrains and Martian topographies joined by the artists for staged, fictionalized alien encounters was most recently on view at the Boise Art Museum.