Barbara Eskin professes to chart disasters without a leg to stand on — multiple disasters, pieces flying everywhere. Before you think about her person — “What a pessimist!” and about her art: “What a downer!” — listen to some history.
Eskin was born in Germany during the waning years of the Second World War. She was taken out of Germany by her parents when still a toddler, and then before she came to America, 20-some years ago, she was a resident of multiple European countries where she picked up a taste for languages and literature.
A teacher by vocation and a canny European by upbringing, she has strong opinions which rarely veer towards the dogmatic, and, if they do, find little landing place.
I’m looking at “In Pieces (4)” — a dynamo of vectors strong enough to bend its frame — yet all within a boundary of 24 x 30 inches. Perhaps boundaries are as good a concept as any to analyze what seems to be the central dynamic of this work — specifically, the fluidity of boundaries, or lack of a clear outside and inside.
I’m scratching my head to decide whether the pink moon on the right side of “In Pieces (4)” has happily escaped from the dark parallelogram that was holding it prisoner or longs to be secured again, like an organ that has slipped its body, still holding a place for it, as far as my eye sees, perfectly open.
Then, I retreat from this reading, and wonder if I’m not reading in that tension — finding it in my own thoughts of escape versus refuge instead of the art’s construction. But then, doesn’t the suggestion of “solid” versus “absence,” “there” versus “not there” which I seem to intuit exist in the background netting of this drama — a pattern pressed in ink from a fishing net’s weave? A net which the artist would find during a walk on the beach and now is part of her enduring technique.
Is each knitted cell of what was once a fishing net now opening or closing its boundaries? Black ink on white canvas leaves a skein of indeterminacy which challenges either interpretation.
For this viewer, there’s a subtle feeling of suspension in the mixture of precise geometry and subtle accidents that a fishing net dipped in ink is bound to make — or bound not to make; some of the interstices of the net are as clear as logic and others a balancing scrabble of intuition.
I’m feeling some visual sensations as ephemeral as a breath, and others perdurable as steel, while I’m reading the collage elements in “#6.” There are “tails” of netting that seem to be both: one darkly formidable with what looks like drops of solder steeling every interstice at its joints; the other is fainter, as if more of breath than a soldering of unbreakable mesh.
The word mesh is both a synonym for netting and a verb for opinions coming together after a mannerly but vigorous verbal wrangle. Is it far-fetched to imagine a former language teacher, a European, a cosmopolite who was born — as goes the Chinese curse — in “interesting times,” to hold both senses of mesh in mind when thinking visually?
What are the declensions of antagonistic systems butting heads? One mode is surely the aggression of a Roman gladiator, say the so-called retiarius named for the net he carries to entangle an opponent then brutally dispatch him with regulation spear and dagger.
“In Pieces (6)” holds a scattering of crimson drops that suggest the ate of an outwitted opponent. And yet, the netting that would entangle an opponent in “#6” suffers from the same ambiguity of all Eskin netting: seeming in spots to be coalescing and adversarially, while, in other places, opening as if to show the way.
And the colors for a bloody demise are all wrong: pastels instead of the screaming hues of spilling viscera. Angles, however sharp at first glance, transform under the influence of such dreaming colors from stabbing points to delicate probes — and back again.
Indeed, historians of Roman blood sports tell us that the more thoughtful gladiators lived through the most brutal shows to fight again — even to retire with glory!
They didn’t collide with their opponents so much as probe each other’s strengths, looking, to be sure, as though they lusted to tear each other to pieces — settling, perforce, for a win/win victory.
Are we that Roman audience enjoying the creative destruction of two antagonists debating their strengths with more respect than bloodlust as we take in the multiple faces of Eskin’s “In Pieces” series? Is it she that is coaching gladiatorial restraint from the sidelines?
Another intellectual and poet, Matthew Arnold, famously mourned from his window on the Victorian era, the panorama of “ignorant armies clashing by night.” Arnold’s rueful judgement, though more colorful, sounds very like the assertion of Eskin’s title of her upcoming solo show at Galatea Fine Art: “Systems Colliding: All in Pieces.”
And yet, the work “In Pieces #3” belies its comparison with Arnoldian gloom in multiple aspects. Sky blue light rather than night backgrounds its action. Planar surfaces, though armed with sharp angles, sport come-hither-pastels rather than warlike hues.
And that formidable netting looks like the cat got at it to open up a mesh that wouldn’t entrap anything — except ambiguity.Arnold is also ambivalent in his word painting of Victorian anarchy. Though the famous last line of “Dover Beach” counsels a despairing retreat, the body of the poem, equally full-throated, entreats us to “Come to the window, sweet is the night air!”
“Love it, or leave it” is not an exit line for either artist’s smooth escape from a world of troubles. Join them, caught in midstride, still debating, strategizing, at Galatea’s capacious doorway.