New York

Diana Shpungin, I Especially Love You When You Are Sleeping, 2011, graphite pencil, citrus tree, citrus leaves, medical tape, newspaper obituaries, 24 x 36 x 68".

Diana Shpungin, I Especially Love You When You Are Sleeping, 2011, graphite pencil, citrus tree, citrus leaves, medical tape, newspaper obituaries, 24 x 36 x 68".

Diana Shpungin

Stephan Stoyanov Gallery

Diana Shpungin, I Especially Love You When You Are Sleeping, 2011, graphite pencil, citrus tree, citrus leaves, medical tape, newspaper obituaries, 24 x 36 x 68".

It is perhaps axiomatic that many of the qualities of grief that make it an enticing subject for artistic exploration—the intensity of feeling it provokes, its inextricable ties with memory, the way its specifics are totally intimate yet its contours immediately understandable to all—are precisely those that make it such a problematic one to work with. Harnessing that intensity without squelching it; teasing out the memories in a way that makes them translatable; unpacking the details without feeling a need to wrestle every last one of them into some kind of larger symbol: These are poles that need to be carefully negotiated, but not so carefully that the work loses track of what’s at stake in the emotional terrain of real, tangible loss.

Diana Shpungin, a resourceful, Latvian-born artist who has lived in New York for the past decade, has taken on this challenge in her first solo show, “(Untitled) Portrait of Dad.” Shpungin spent the 2000s working in collaboration with the artist Nicole Engelmann, with whom she made stylized, performative videos, and this exhibition was, in an oblique but fundamental sense, a collaboration as well—not only with Shpungin’s late father, a surgeon who died in 2006 and who was the indispensable focus here, but also with the late Felix Gonzalez-Torres, to whose work the show’s title (and, in some cases, contents) explicitly nodded and whose spirit also hovered over Shpungin’s estimable enterprise.

There was a vivid sense of catharsis in the work, coming not only from the artist’s own feelings about her father, but also from the liberation she clearly felt in showing on her own for the first time. The exhibition’s dozen-odd works—comprising more than one hundred individual drawings, four hand-drawn animations, and a clutch of sculptural scenarios (including a ton of potatoes spilled for the taking, à la the Gonzalez-Torres piece from which the show takes its name, in a suitably claustrophobic cellar)—infiltrated the whole of Stoyanov’s modest Lower East Side space. Yet for all the variety of media and approaches, it was the pencil that emerged as Shpungin’s signal tool and operative motif: obviously in the drawings and animations, the former sometimes augmented with medical tape or bits of drywall, but also in the sculptural works in which objects—a broken chair in A Fixed Space Reserved for the Haunting; a dead citrus sapling, complete with fallen leaves, in I Especially Love You When You Are Sleeping (both 2011)—are painstakingly hand-coated in graphite. Sober and fugitive, the medium is one well suited to conjuring shadows, both literal and figurative.

If erasure was a favored gesture here—both of the two sculptural objects, for instance, are paired with stacks of newspaper obituary sections from which personal details have been censored—so, too, was repetition. Seriality is implicit in Shpungin’s hand-drawn animations like Endless Ocean, 2011, in which her father is pictured on a beach in silhouette, improbably holding a seagull by one foot as the bird struggles to fly off, or the evocative His View, 2011, in which the work’s gaze, up from the ground and into a sun-dappled tree, is interrupted for only a moment when a silhouetted woman first places and then removes a bouquet from what is presumably a grave. And it is explicit in Until It No Longer, 2007–11, a series of forty-nine identical small pencil drawings of Shpungin’s father in his casket, representing a ritual of both mortification and resolution.

These low-key acts of remembrance find their apotheosis in the show’s centerpiece, 1664 Sundays, 2011, the aforementioned potato spill that is meant to point simultaneously to the two figures at the conceptual heart of the project. A welcome bit of formal relief from the relentless black-and-whiteness of the rest of the show (you know you’re deep in the world of the monochrome when it falls to potatoes to provide a moment of “color”), the work takes its title from the number of Sundays that daughter and father were both alive. The piece—which includes editioned bags bearing the recipe for a favorite weekend snack using the tubers—offers not a riposte to but rather a diffident acknowledgment of the elegiac power of the original: a participatory act of transubstantiation that gathers up the past and sends it out into the future.

Jeffrey Kastner