View of “Zsófia Keresztes,” 2020. From left: Easy targets, heavy bites I, 2020; The Failure, 2020.

View of “Zsófia Keresztes,” 2020. From left: Easy targets, heavy bites I, 2020; The Failure, 2020.

Zsófia Keresztes

Five years ago, the artist Audrey Wollen shook the internet with her “Sad Girl Theory,” proposing the notion of female sadness as a mode of politicized resistance that runs counter to the “lean-in” rhetoric of empowerment feminism. In her photo series “Repetition,” 2014–15, Wollen re-created artworks made by men, in which she posed as moody, modern versions of art history’s female muses. (One image shows Wollen from behind, lounging nude in bed like Ingres’s odalisque. She gazes at her laptop webcam, while the front of her body is displayed on the screen.) The reception to this project was polarizing, and some chalked up Wollen’s self-objectification to mere narcissism, social-media style. Now, vulnerability and empathy are currencies to be mined online. Of course, they are qualities that seem most valuable when embraced by young, attractive influencers, who avoid the messiness of systemic problems such as poverty, mental illness, and capitalistic exploitation. “Glossy Inviolability,” the Hungarian artist Zsófia Keresztes’s solo exhibition at Brooklyn’s Elijah Wheat Showroom, illustrated the cynical desire to commodify such affect. Her mosaic sculptures and one drawing, all studded with oversize tears, envisaged a semiabstract spider woman and her web. The curatorial blurb, based on several conversations with the artist, describes the internet as “an actual web of tears, linked to the habits we form of searching to assuage our feelings of self-pity, our projections, our need for others to notice and see us online.” Accordingly, the teardrops that adorn Keresztes’s compositions sharpen rather than soften them—on one end they are bulbous, like harmless flesh; on the other, they are pointed, like a dagger.

Keresztes’s show opened about two weeks before the Covid-19 pandemic hit New York, so it’s likely that many viewers experienced the exhibition online. Sculpture can be challenging in the digital sphere, but one element of Keresztes’s work seemed perfectly suited for the computer screen: the glass tiles that resemble pixels and envelop her Styrofoam and fiberglass forms. The Failure (all works 2020) depicts a headless woman—a master manipulator of empathy who “feed[s] off the grief of others, while her pretense is that of inviolability.” The fetishistic sculpture features a pair of legs spread wide—six feet from toe to toe—and five teardrops. Two droplets stream from a pair of wide-set eyes, while a second pair (perhaps where her buttocks might otherwise be) pierce the flesh of the figure’s breasts at the apex of the piece. This poor creature seems to have torn herself asunder for more “likes.” Easy targets, heavy bites I and II—two terra-cotta-hued spiderwebs (symbolizing the World Wide Web) adorned with pale-blue tears—flanked The Failure. One of the sculptures was suspended from a corner of the gallery’s ceiling, as if it were a security camera. Distress of the Hunter, a drawing in colored pencil and pastel, showed a similar form, but made out of hands sporting dangerously long and exquisitely manicured nails. Such sinister details would have enhanced the three-dimensional webs, which lack some of the picture’s more carnal appeal. 

Louise Bourgeois is the iconic feminist sculptor of arachnids, but Keresztes’s aesthetic also nods to forebears such as Ree Morton’s Celastic treasures, festooned with birthday candles and bows; or even Niki de Saint Phalle’s public artwork Tarot Garden, 1998, a field of monumental and mosaicked figures celebrating the esoteric card deck. Like many of her millennial contemporaries making sculpture, Keresztes marries a playful sensibility with the exaggerated or the grotesque. Her sculptures are in dialogue with Rose Nestler’s cone-breasted power suits; Hannah Levy’s half-human, half-vegetal appendages that hang from imposing metal chandeliers; or Doreen Garner’s renditions of female genitalia stuffed with pearls and hair and subjected to horrifying medical experiments. All of these objects perform exceptionally well for the screen, while critiquing the ways that female-presenting bodies have been distorted by the frequently misogynistic dictates of design and science. Keresztes’s spider woman is caught in a network where she can no longer disentangle her own desire—for empathy, for connection—from that of the algorithm.