Renée Van Halm

S. L. Simpson Gallery

Renée Van Halm’s large-scale sculptural works challenge Modernist conventions by incorporating marginalized artistic practices that have fallen outside the high-art canon into an ostensibly Modernist framework. For Van Halm, the marginalized consists of decorative flourishes, conventions that acknowledge the presence of the individual, and genres overlooked by the Modernist machine. Slowly moving away from her large-scale outdoor, architectural sculptures of the ’80s, Van Halm has fabricated measured and distilled works that comment on their own status as art objects, subtly challenging Modernist esthetic protocols.

Using fine wood veneers that relate to furnishings and interior decor, each of the four structures exhibited serve as imposing frames for smaller paintings displayed on the sculptural support. The form of Translation, 1992, is based on an S curve, split into a pair of vertical walls onto which are hung two small canvases hand-lettered with the words “NATURE MORTE”. Encased in box frames, these canvases suggest specimens illustrating the secondary status that genre styles, such as still life, have been given in art history.

Similarly, in a work entitled Verification, 1992, the signature of the American Impressionist Mary Cassatt is transcribed in three different forms onto framed roundels, each colored in muted tones suggesting Cassatt’s palette. Focusing on an artist who has been marginalized in late-l9th-century art history, Van Halm is once again using the strategy of framing—isolating the artist’s signature—as a method of validating obscured claims to authorship.

Van Halm’s strategy is clear. She questions accepted meanings, repeatedly underscoring the need to move beyond static readings of objects and structures. Selecting a specific set of parameters, she focuses in on the cultural construct of the artist and the art object. Yet she remains in the protected domain of art history, relying on generic symbols such as the illustration of branches chosen to represent nature in a wall piece entitled Origin, 1992. Rather than tackle the slippery terrain inhabited by the contemporary artist in her attempts to challenge the legitimacy of Modernism, she brings forward illustrations of discarded forms that remain in the rarefied precinct of history, and are ultimately overpowered by the expansive Modernist frames. Unfortunately, the result is work the meaning of which is in danger of being overwhelmed by the legacy of Modernism, unable to cut free of its still-reigning authority. While Van Halm’s frames serve to critique, they also align her with the tenets of pure form, buying into the version of formalist Modernism that is legitimated both by scale and high production values.

Linda Genereux