New York

“Yvon Lambert Presents 'Artemisia'”

Judith chose her moment well: his was the right head and he was the right tyrant. Treacherous enough to deceive Holophernes, Judith was also cunning enough to elude the wrath of her critics: her premeditated, cold-blooded beheading of the man who loved her has, for centuries, been considered an exceptional deed. Hailed as the savior of her tribe, a heroine still, Judith (opportunist that she was) is remembered only for the courage and composure that she displayed in an hour of desperation. Many a city, therefore, has looked to her in times of need, and numerous artists have paid her tribute by depicting the decapitation of the betrayed Holophernes.

One such artist was Artemisia Gentileschi, whose painting of the incident serves as the inspiration for this exhibition. Organized under the direction of Parisian gallery owner Yvon Lambert, “Artemisia” is the American half of an exchange which sent the work of a number of the artists from Paula Cooper’s Gallery to France. Every piece appearing in New York has been made to order for this show, and each uses the Gentileschi canvas as a springboard. As would be hoped, all of the artists have chosen to fly in distinctly different directions, allowing “Artemisia” to be much more than a multi-media meditation on a single work of art.

Never one to miss an opportunity to praise those who have successfully separated a head from its body, Joseph Kosuth presents Missing (a partial description), another of his definition/propositions in which a baited trap has been set for the unwary reader; Kosuth craftily includes words which appear inappropriate, and subtly replaces key terms with their antonyms. “What is hidden (sic) here is a missing part. . . .” reads one fragment from his transparent piece. An allusion to the fractured Holophernes? A self-referential reference referring to the self-referentiality of his own work? Perhaps, but this phrase seems to be one of Kosuth’s pranks, for it quickly becomes apparent that he intended us to read it as: “What is missing here is obvious . . .” An able craftsman, Kosuth, once again, urges us to seek both a metaphysical and physical distance from his art.

Unlike Kosuth, Duane Michals has not plunged into the illusory depths of a funhouse mirror. Instead, Michals has chosen to retell the tale of Judith and Holophernes, as a seven-frame photo-drama-cum-morality play. Not one to be fooled by Judith’s savior status, Michals portrays his Holophernes as the defenseless victim of an alluring sexual trap. The “tyrant” innocently indulges in the pleasures offered by his pert partner and finds consummation of his desires only in death.

That sex and death are intertwined in many of the works in this show is very much in keeping with both the themes found in the Biblical text and Artemisia’s rendering of its most brutal moment. In Artemisia’s painting, for example, the bed upon which the lovers have frolicked is transformed into a sacrificial altar. There is also some question as to how we should perceive the shape of the sword’s suggestive hilt which, along with Holophernes’ arms and head, dominates the painting’s center.

Lea Lublin finds this central section of the canvas to be an arena packed with references—sexual and otherwise—and, therefore, has chosen to isolate and examine it in her own work. In a series of drawings, Lublin transforms this “significant fragment” into a number of allusionistic images which expose the “latent significations” buried upon the surface of Artemisia’s painting. It becomes the sword in the stone (Judith, like Arthur, gained power and immortality with the weapon), the stroking of the great man’s member, the birth of a child (or rebirth of a nation). Like most of the works in this show, Lublin’s is able to shed light on Artemisia’s concerns (conscious and unconscious), and to reinvest her painting of Holophernes’ demise with whatever life (or death) the passing centuries have stolen from it.

Douglas Blau