New York

Claudia Hart

Pat Hearn Gallery

Claudia Hart takes Jean-Jacques Rousseau, historian, playwright, social critic, and Romantic par excellence, as the subject matter for her show. Three separate titles: “Brief Lives, Part 1” “Chance and Circumstance/1” and “The Contingency of Selfhood,” explicitly open the cultural Pandora’s box of Romanticism. Intended as the first in a series of exhibits dealing with the topic, this show opens up the dialogue surrounding the theoretical foundations on which both contemporary and historical art are based. Romanticism, as a response to the post-Cartesian disjunction of a free moral mind, and a nonfree body, subject to the deterministic rules of science, celebrated art as a revealer of truth. Opposed to the restrictive analytical reason associated with the Enlightenment, Romantic thinkers and artists sought refuge in the unifying force of intuitive perception. Hart’s exhibition draws attention to the continuing pendulum swing between these two world views.

The exhibit consisted of a series of five “self-portraits” in three-quarter view labeled “The Spirit of the Natural Man,” “The Spirit of Revolt,” “The Spirit of Virtue,” “The Spirit of Sadism,” and “The Spirit of Masochism”; a series of four oval-shaped self-portraits in profile labeled “Author,” “Author as Rousseau,” “Rousseau Personified,” and “Rousseau”; and five large text canvases presenting information about Rousseau’s life, (both biographical and Hart’s fictionized version), a comparison of Hart’s astrological chart and Rousseau’s, and a visual inventory of Hart’s results on the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality test. All paintings were done on a white ethereal surface with the text and image in faded grey. A documentary style videotape entitled “The Mirror of Nature” consisted of false facts and fictional roles created and played by Hart.

The complexity of information produces a gene-splicing effect between the historical reality of Rousseau’s contribution to the French Revolution and to Romanticist thought; the psychotic paranoia of Rousseau’s old age (and the attendant questions about the reality of subjective experience raised by such a state); and Hart’s own notions about the role of the subjective and her own independent identity. What is real and what is not, and by what authority we decide such matters are the underlying concerns.

At stake here are fundamental questions about the role of representation. It has been the fashion for the last decade to collapse the distinctions between text, interpretation, and exterior reality. The interpretation is the reality; there is no reality outside the text. This point of view has the interesting, and, in Hart’s view ultimately artificial, effect of negating the polarity between the subject and the object since the text or the esthetic experience has expanded to include the whole of reality. What Hart has done is to throw into question this whole circuitous, nihilistic journey.

Hart comes out in favor of potential meaning and therefore of “Fact,” however mutable or susceptible to madness that fact might be. It is a point of view that jibes with the feminist validation of antiauthoritarian subjectivity, while at the same time it gives credence to a reality exterior to language. The statement seems to suggest that there is a world out there but also an inner reality and that the two are not at all synonymous. The net effect is a kind of optimism, albeit of a slightly warbled sort. Happily enough, Hart’s project stands in contradistinction to the sort of work that results in the viewer fleeing the gallery with hands and brow clammy from the exertion wrought by contrived intellectualism. There is genuine thought here.

Dena Shottenkirk