New York

Claudia Hart

Pat Hearn Gallery

Claudia Hart’s first solo exhibition of paintings and objects (all works 1988) employs Enlightenment themes and formats. The paintings mimic the diagrammatic layout of encyclopedic and scientific book illustrations, and the objects derive from Neoclassical themes. Each has been carefully manipulated so as to deflate its ideological basis. The Enlightenment motifs and formats are but a paradigm—a model that reflects the practices and beliefs of a given community. In the case of Hart’s project, that community parallels our own Modernist heritage, which becomes an extension of the positivism engendered during the Enlightenment.

Because the very notion of a paradigm implies a relative rather than an absolute truth value, it is vulnerable to parody, and parody is the device that Hart uses most effectively. In the sculpture Ledoux’s Ideal Prison (Frozen), inspired by the architect’s never-completed prison in Aix-en-Provence, Hart renders this impervious fortress as a sand castle, parodying the architect’s lust for ever-lasting perfection with a contradictory emblem of decay and entropy. The Neoclassical paradigm of permanence becomes a fleeting illusion—a mirage that evaporates and returns to desert sand.

One untitled painting depicts an image reminiscent of an illustrative plate for a scientific book. Upon the canvas’ pale surface is a palimpsest of familiar optical illusions, puns, and paradoxes—various Möbius strips in two and three dimensions and an image that can be read either as a vase or as two faces in profile. The use of optical illusions suggests the falsehood hidden behind appearances, indeed that which is implicit in the paradigmatic models that describe truth and knowledge.

Hart’s visual paradoxes are themselves subject to parodic abuses. The works are hand-lettered and the rendering of their geometric forms is crude and imperfect. Visual discrepancies between images result from actual mistakes rather than from the effects of optical trickery. In several other paintings, long pastiches of borrowed text feature words that are misspelled, evidence of the human error in Hart’s scrivenery.

These subtle paradoxes are used to best effect in Aye, Aiee, I. This photographic montage frames two figures, both dressed in 19th-century French garb, inside the borders of a rationalist space of cubes, spheres, and pyramids. Hart herself is disguised in the dress and pose of a self-portrait by David at the left, and of the Comtesse d’Haussonville by Ingres at the right. By presenting herself as a man and a woman in a single frame, Hart is both herself and other. The doubling and contradiction generates an air of paradox that is heightened by the phrase “I AM LYING,” which is printed below these two figures. Hart’s parodic critique of the intellectual tradition of the Enlightenment inevitably becomes another paradigm, one that is as artificial as the thing it critiques, and hence subject to further parody. As evidenced by her telling presence in the photomontage, Hart anticipates the falsehood of her own paradigm by making herself the subject of her own parody.

Kirby Gookin