October 26, 2016
By Terence Dick
One advantage that writers have over artists is that they don’t always have to be themselves. Novelists are free to create worlds unlike their own, but artists are held responsible for their work because its authenticity is bound to personal expression. One visual artist who has successfully evaded this burden is Iris Häussler. She exhibits under her own name at Daniel Faria Gallery, but also inhabits from time to time fabricated artists through which she creates entirely original bodies of work. However, to leave it at that would make the results an evasive manoeuvre akin the fabrications of famous authors writing under pseudonyms. Häussler is concerned with the legacy as much as the life of an artist, so she wraps her creation’s creations in an art historical discourse that blends fact and fiction to get to a greater truth through indirect means.
On the website that documents her current endeavour, she refers to it as an installation-novel. The protagonist is a turn-of-the-century French painter who goes by the name Sophie La Rosiere. In the fragments of her biography made available, there is the implication that she is a covert lesbian. Her art, when it is revealed, consists of erotic images of nude women and vulva-like flowers. The narrative twist that Häussler introduces is that this work was at some point later in the artist’s life obliterated by layers of black beeswax encaustic. The hidden paintings thus resonate as buried evidence, concealed emotions, lost histories, and erased lives. It’s not surprising that videos of expert commentary on the discovery of this previously unknown artist include a couple psychoanalysts hypothesizing the reasons for this act of creative repression.
Whether the experts on screen are in on the deception or not isn’t clear, but I don’t think it matters. Häussler is not so much interested in trickery (though she has made effective use of dissemblance in the past) as the suspension of disbelief. That is the minimum requirement of all representational art (which is why Plato was so down on it) and she cranks it up to a reality-infusing degree, so much so that her creations overflow into the world we inhabit. Sophie La Rosiere’s black paintings appear in a reconstruction of her studio that fills a gallery at the Art Gallery of York University. In another space, vitrines filled with souvenirs and memorabilia trace the outline of her story in a bare bones fashion. A historian onscreen points out that figures from the past become more ghostly the farther they recede from our present. This particular artist lies on the cusp of the 20th Century, but remains out of reach of modern recording devices; all that’s left of her are scrap of papers, personal effects, and her mysterious works.
A selection of the black paintings has undergone x-ray imaging to reveal the images that lie beneath. These are on display at Scrap Metal Gallery along with the video testimonials and work tables stacked with reference texts (from exhibition catalogues to W.G. Sebald’s books to something from the Museum of Jurassic Technology) and what looks to be Häussler’s own studio ephemera from the creation of the experience we have just passed through. Another of the experts mentions the different ways we pay attention, and the possibilities are drawn out of us as we move through the layers of this story, piecing it together one fragment to the next. The subject at its centre, whether she ever existed or not, comes alive for us (just like the characters of our favourite novels) and then – and this is where artifice becomes something more – her life expands into the eternal themes that enrich our own: love, desire, loyalty, freedom, constraint, expression, resignation, loss, and the list goes on.