Kahn + Selesnick | Madame Lulu's Book of Fate


Kahn + Selesnick | Madame Lulu's Book of Fate
Apr 9 – May 30, 2020


Robischon Gallery is pleased to present the collaborative, New York duo of Nicholas Kahn and Richard Selesnick with an online presentation of their exhibition entitled “Madame Lulu’s Book of Fate.” In the encompassing installation, Kahn + Selesnick’s theatrical characters animate the narrative in numerous photographs, tarot and augury drawings, sculpture and a large-scale painting of the central carnival character, Madame Lulu. As in previous visual chapters, “Madame Lulu’s Book of Fate” expands upon the imagined purposes and roles of magical, oftentimes mystical, entertainers belonging to the company Truppe Fledermaus (Bat Troupe) and the artists’ overarching series “The Carnival at the End of the World.” Curiously timely, the troop returns once more to reveal flashes of a collective future that seems increasingly uncertain and perilous.

With typical Kahn + Selesnick subversion, the artists’ elaborately staged tondo photographs embrace the guise of the carnivalesque in the spirit of operatic vaudevillian performers, harlequins, ribald talismanic animal-men, sorceresses, and mummers. Alongside the mysteriously engaging circular photographs throughout the gallery, four simultaneous aspects of the series meet the eye: large-scale photographs of button-masked skeletons take part in the surreal panoramic procession of the Danse Macabre and the grid of symbolic and divinatory tarot costume drawings wrap the corner walls. Located nearby are several painted terracotta tarot sculptures which include masks for blind giants and mythological sirens who lure mariners to their fateful end. Culminating the exhibition is a large mask-shaped wall installation composed of round, sensitively rendered augury drawings, all furthering the theme of the symbolic, while signifying shifts in perception from the vantage point of the hidden. Throughout the related series of works on view, up is down; left is right; fools and sages alike flourish anonymously, blending in among those in masquerade attire, while the emblematic objects and tarot reader’s cards tell the tale. With the disruption of the society, truths once not dared uttered in the familiar world are freely spoken anew since disguise and subterfuge unleash an equalizing relief in the upturned social order. Within the series, just as in human history, the antics and the carnival created by Kahn + Selesnick’s theatrical Truppe Fledermaus are akin in their surreal nature to the various pagan festivals, celebrations and holidays manifested across cultures for centuries. The lavish costumes, puzzling theatrical performances, absurd predicaments, inexplicable ambiguous encounters and ritualized dance of this chapter of Truppe Fledermaus, “Madame Lulu’s Book of Fate,” suggest a topsy-turvy world where, in fact, what seems most peculiar might actually reveal what is true. 

As further overview of the individual artworks, many of the exhibited circular photographs suggest an undercurrent of transformation, such as:  Butterfly Man, an image of a charcoal skinned figure surrounded by numerous fluttering black insects swarming in a field of healing echinacea, and in the artwork titled Bonsai, a giant’s hand thrusts a boat to safety above the sea containing the artists designated, “last tree.” In an expression and suggestion of the notion of fate, Madame Lulu’s Carnival at the End of the World tarot character costume drawings display inimitable Kahn + Selesnick twists on the emblematic cards of divinatory significance. Major Arcana figures such as The EmperorThe Hermit and Strength, which is illustrated by a woman with her head in a lion’s mouth, appear alongside the artists’ complex versions of the minor arcana of swords, pentacles, wands and cups. The symbolic meaning of each is amplified by the artists’ intentionally puzzling images of figures made of arrow-pierced packages, locket portraits, wheat and more. Painted terracotta sculptures of tarot figures, eyeball masks for blind giants, and mythological sirens who lure mariners to their death with irresistible lyrical song, along with other arcane hand-sculpted objects for prognostication, line the expansive gallery ledges. And the round augury pastel drawings expand the artists’ embrace of transformation and the unknowable with a human face transfigured into a bird-like presence in Swan Rooster Chimera Augury, or in the eyes and ears of the Ex-votos Augury, an ex-voto being an image or object left as an offering in gratitude for recovery from injury or illness.

With their eerily-prescient themes, Kahn + Selesnick series have often predated world events, such as the financial crisis of 2008 which corresponded to the complications of devalued currency in the artists’ timely series “Eisbergfriestadt,”as well as the early environmental flood warnings of the series “Dreams of a Drowning World.” With the exhibited series, Truppe Fledermaus’ (Bat Troupe), “Madame Lulu’s Book of Fate,” much of which was created in 2019, the duo’s visionary powers are revived in 2020 as the artists inadvertently land on the current topical nightmare that is the corona virus signified by both bat imagery and in specific, the pangolin, as shown in the pastel and conte crayon augury drawing Pangolin Bonaparte. The drawing pairs the notion of the French Emperor with the long-snouted, scaled mammal called the pangolin, believed to be currently, along with the bat, the possible zoonotic bearer of the intractable contagion to humans. Finely rendered in a circular portrait, the strange, delicately realized blue-toned creature wraps around the neck of the figure to rest on top of his head. Adorable in its appearance, yet unnervingly positioned with its tail wound around the figure’s neck and on the lookout, the pangolin reflects a kind of forewarning to humankind of Nature’s advantage in the present day epidemiological catastrophe. The work of Kahn + Selesnick may exemplify transmutation and transcendence of sorts, but truth in their world is equally balanced within the series as the repeated declaration in banner form reads:  ABSURDITE, FUTILITE, CAPTIVITE.  As in all previous series including “City of Salt,” “Scotlandfuturebog” and the continuing saga of “Truppe Fledermaus and the Carnival at the End of the World,” Kahn + Selesnick adroitly layer their preposterous theatrically created worlds with both fantasy and foresighted truths alike.



Madame Lulu’s Book of Fate

When you look through the porthole of your berth aboard the ship, what do you see? The raging ocean? A lone iceberg? The world as it once was, now receding into the distance? Likewise, when you peer through your telescope at the distant boat from the lonely shoreline, what do you see? An approaching storm? A drowning man? The future, drifting forever out of reach? The Truppe Fledermaus invite you to look through the portal where you shall find scenes of men and women trying to parse that which is to come, speak with those departed, or just finding their pleasure amid the florid decay of a world in decline. For in a world where personal and societal mythologies supersede facts, where the promise of virtual realities threaten to supersede the real thing, what better way to approach an uncertain future than through the arcane methods of augury and clairvoyance—after all, is not prophecy the original fake news?

Our latest project “Madame Lulu’s Book of Fate” continues the adventures of the Truppe Fledermaus, a cabaret troupe of anxious mummers and would-be mystics who catalogue their absurdist attempts to augur a future that seems increasingly in peril due to environmental pressures and global turmoil. In this body of work, we also examine the notion of the carnivalesque—traditionally the carnival was a time when the normal order of society was upended and reversed, so that at least for a day the fool might become king, the sinner a priest, men and women might cross dress, and sacred ceremonies and normal mores are burlesqued and spoofed. During such brief times of anarchy, societal pressures were relieved by revealing their somewhat absurd and arbitrary natures. Costumes and masks were traditionally worn so that all people might have the same social status during the duration of the festival. The Truppe ask you to consider: is it the carnival that is upside-down, or perhaps the real world that it purports to burlesque?

----Kahn + Selesnick