Exhibition Essay: The Unicorn in Captivity

From Minnesota Artists Exhibition Program

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That love’s enchantment may be brought to pass!
First the two hears which know each other well,
Then charm which doth accompany them both,
The moon then casting its bewitching beams
Through the beech forests in the early spring,
Then that these two can meet there all alone—
Then the first kiss—and then…their innocence.
~Adam Oehlenschläger (1779-1850)

To my arm-chair there comes a dream
From the springtime of youth,
A longing intense
For thee, thou sun amongst women!
~Poul Møller (1794-1838)

by Michelle Grabner
Søren Kierkegaard’s inquiry into subjective truth is an appropriate frame in which to introduce Alexa Horochowski’s fantastical narrative practice. Where Kierkegaard repeatedly quoted the Danish Romantic poet Adam Oehlenschläger and the author Poul Møller in his philosophical treatises, to ground existential discourse in emotional truths, Horochowski pictures passionate inwardness. Her graphic visual vocabulary, depicting the powerful mischief of prepubescent girls, flirts with both the subjective and the universal, as oblique and lyrical epigrams and morally instructive fables.

In The Concluding Unscientific Postscript (1846) Kierkegaard tells a tale of an escaped lunatic who attempted to elude the authorities and avoid recapture by speaking only facts and objective truth. Yet communicating in facts when he was questioned landed him back in the asylum, because he was unable to ascertain when facts have value. Horochowski, to the contrary, sparingly employs specificity of fact and representation in the chimerical worlds she invents. Her compositions are graphically parsed, revealing accurate detail so as to carefully direct attention to the crux of the narrative. This refined style of pictorial storytelling celebrates the tensions between what is literal in her scenarios and what is abstract and ambiguous.

Take for instance Night (2005). Here two black beetles and a ghostly nude girl are delineated and modeled with a seductive graphic reality. Yet the grove of leafless trees and the shadows they cast on the grassy foreground are treated as a highly stylized, flat motif. Contrasting with these landscape elements is a painterly and luminous night sky dotted with stars. This is a story of yearning and curiosity, with classical overtones. Self-reflexive human consciousness coexisting with the instinctual habits of the natural world, the goodness of light and sinfulness of the dark, the knowing of reason and the unknowing emotion, these dichotomies nod to universal fables that permeate all of Horochowski’s works. However, one can never confidently identify a pictorial or literary quotation in her enigmatic pictures. An exception is The Swing (2005), where Fragonard’s rococo painting of the same title is reprised by Horochowski’s and confounded with the brutal limbs of a barren oak tree. Otherwise she simply hints at classical myths, medieval folktales, and biblical narratives.

Horochowski’s rigorous graphic style employs concise line work, assertive patterns, and a limited color range to establish an illustrational mode of pictorial storytelling. Her figures behave with ease in their fictional nature, but her characters’ eyes reveal an inward, contemplative psychology. Performing roles that are eternal, these figures diligently bend to the essence and history of storytelling. Giving viewers something greater than artistic self-expression or the abject emotion of her characters, she presents us with cautionary tales about our own psychological complexities and the potential of our imagination.

Horochowski’s practice is structured around the freedom to assess a moral interpretation from the poetics of her visual language. It is a practice that bravely pokes at our contemporary culture of storytelling defined by repetitious tales of winners and losers (American Idol, The Apprentice, George W. Bush’s administration) or by idiosyncratic interestedness (David Foster Wallace, David Altmejd, Robyn O’Neil). Regrettably, these reductive narrative structures have come to permeate all aspects of present-day life. Horochowski instead complicates the thorny subject matter of love, desire, fear, and hope. Her prepubescent girls are dewy and tainted, gracious and crestfallen. They embody all the ills and benevolence that constitute the human condition. They are neither good nor evil.

Subject matter in contemporary art has become problematic. The New York art critic Scott Rothkopf, in an essay for Artforum (May 2004) titled “Subject Matters,” maps how idiosyncratic subject matter—or more specifically the artist’s personal interests—has become the context in which to measure value in art making. “Many young American artists,” he writes, “are staking out private parcels of the cultural landscape, choosing material that’s personal enough to call their own but accessible enough to talk about to others.” The problem with the scenario is that “interest” is no longer determined by the viewer. For art historian Mary LeClere, “This seems to be the crux of the problem” if interest is taken for granted—if, that is, the work is already interesting—we risk winding up without a fiend of practices to differentiate between.” Her essay “From Specific Objects to Specific Subjects: Is There (Still) Interest in Pluralism?” then continues with this challenge: “For, if the only things that distinguished one work from another is whether it reveals an interest in slasher flicks or video games, where does that leave us?”

Horochowski’s tales still locate interest squarely in the eyes of the viewer. We view her pensive figures through a psychological and historical lens that brings meaning, moral instruction, and amusement into focus. Horochowski, like Aesop and the Brothers Grimm, spins fables that illuminate the ethical complications in life, a humanist practice of which contemporary picture making is bereft.

Michelle Grabner is an artist and writer in Oak Park, Illinois, and a professor of painting and drawing at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.