New York

Rebecca Quaytman

Spencer Brownstone Gallery

The Sun is Rebecca Quaytman’s latest work: a group of forty uniformly sized plywood panels, which can be arranged in multiple configurations. In this solo exhibition, they were hung in a grid. (A slightly different version of the piece was presented simultaneously in a single long row at the Queens Museum, as part of the group show “Crossing the Line.”) Quaytman’s title refers to the now defunct newspaper that reported the deaths of her paternal grandfather and great-grandfather in a freak train accident just over sixty years ago. The word “sun” also evokes the metaphoric and literal capacity to illuminate and, when spoken aloud, further alludes to a familial role that, as a woman, the artist can never play. Quaytman’s ambitious project interweaves all these associations, but the last is her guiding light—for its reference less to gender per se than to a particular type of inheritance: Through the train accident, father and son are coupled in death. As “daughter,” not “son,” Quaytman stands in an oblique position to this morbid legacy. In her work, this fact serves as an emblem of the subject’s inevitably partial access to meaning, as well as a springboard to a broad philosophical meditation on the nature—and limits—of representation.

Each panel that makes up The Sun bears an image inspired by the 1940 wreck (some hand-painted, others photo-silk-screened). Like a chain of neurotic displacements, the pictures build off one another, spinning away from the event that is their cause but never breaking free of its gravitational pull. From a silk screen of the newspaper article Quaytman moves to a close-up of the paper’s masthead, then to the opening page of the first edition of Richard Wright’s novel Native Son. An archival image of a train arriving at the 1939 World’s Fair, which her grandfather and great-grandfather attended the day of their deaths, is echoed in a contemporary photograph of a train in Lodz, where the two men lived before immigrating to the United States. Another constellation of images comprises hand-painted pictures of plywood strips. This pictorial reiteration of the painting’s physical ground establishes a clear-cut binary: on one side, reality, on the other, its representation. It also underscores the numerous instances of doubling that animate Quaytman’s work, from the repetition of one photographic source on several panels to the multiple plays on the word “sun.” In essence, to double is to represent—to render the absent present. But, according to Freud, the double is also the sign of representation’s outer limit—the uncanny harbinger of our inescapable yet always unimaginable deaths.

Quaytman is tackling some pretty heavy topics: the fact of mortality, the limits of representation, the force that the past exerts on the present. But for all its visual elegance and theoretical sophistication, her work cannot entirely support their weight. Quaytman handles her images with extremely effective restraint. They flicker across the multiple panels like a mute parade of facts, at once obvious and opaque. But as the logic of her project becomes more apparent, the pictures lose their mysterious edge. They begin to speak, but not quite in the way the artist intends. In order to embody—as opposed to merely illustrate—the subjects it seeks to address, The Sun must strike an elusive chord: It must generate the experience of being at once powerfully drawn in and permanently held in abeyance, which is the condition of trauma In a sense, Quaytman’s project is too well thought through. What it lacks is that crucial element Roland Barthes refers to as the punctum—that tiny, accidental spark, which can never be anticipated, and which pricks the viewer with the sudden awareness that some forms of absence can never be overcome.

Margaret Sundell