Dark and light sides of pleasure

Kirsten Hassenfeld's place of "endless plenty" at Bell Gallery
By GREG COOK  |  September 2, 2009

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ELEGANT A chandelier from Dans La Lune

"I want to create a place where people can take a little vacation from reality," Brooklyn artist Kirsten Hassenfeld has said. "I'm interested in going to a place where there is no want, only endless plenty." In "Recent Sculpture," her exhibit at Brown University's Bell Gallery (64 College Street, Providence, through November 1), she succeeds magnificently.

VIEWMore photos of Kirsten Hassenfeld's work at the Bell Gallery

The main event is Dans La Lune (2007), a gallery-filling installation of paper, vellum, tissue, corrugated cardboard, and foamboard cut out and assembled into a dangling constellation resembling translucent white-on-white chandeliers, giant earrings, wedding cake decorations, paper lanterns, ice, Christmas ornaments, and an enchanted crystal palace. The five main elements, each four to eight feet wide, glow from within from fluorescent bulbs.

One of the main "chandeliers" features foamboard ribs curving around an accordion-fold paper lantern with the silhouette of woman's profile. Another seems to be encrusted by crystals and jewels, which sometimes look like Styrofoam lunch cartons. One of these "jewels" is hollow, framing a picture of a naked, chained woman inside.

The fragile-looking parts vary from tiny to giant. Wandering through you find that a chain dangling from a giant chandelier holds a little gazebo at its end with an accordion-fold lady and a lacy pony inside. At the end of another chain is a hollow star framing crystal towers and flapping pennants. Hassenfeld's smaller, earlier work could seem shallowly decorative. Here shifts in scale give it a deeper resonance, a sensation a bit like taking swigs from the "drink me" bottle in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. The installation's apt title translates literally from the French as "In the Moon," but it's an idiom that can mean groggy, drugged, or "head in the clouds."

The mascot for this extravaganza, which was organized by Bell Gallery director Jo-Ann Conklin, is the Roman god Bacchus, who appears nude in a cameo dangling from a paper chain. Surrounded by a naked lady, a cupid, and a little satyr, he raises a glass in one hand and holds a phallic scepter in the other. "Bacchus represents a complete sinking into pleasure or decadence," Hassenfeld has said. "I like the dark and light sides of losing yourself in pleasure."

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THE MAIN EVENT Hassenfeld’s Dans La Lune

Twentieth-century Modernism's main line wound up in a final march toward Minimalist and Conceptualist asceticism. But by the 1990s, the art world was buzzing with talk of a return to beauty. It was mainly a reserved Minimalist beauty — think Félix González-Torres's strings of bare light bulbs. But now we have lush, bubbly, decorative, romantic, rapturous beauty.

This transformation can be traced to 1970s feminist Pattern and Decoration art, which challenged macho æsthetics by embracing floral, decorative, domestic (i.e., "feminine") designs. But perhaps more directly influential was Kara Walker (RISD MFA 1994), who seized people's attention in 1994 by fashioning bracing tableaus of race and sex in a hothouse Antebellum America out of the "feminine" 19th-century craft of cut-paper silhouettes. And then in the early 2000s, Dutch designer Tord Boontje's die-cut, cascading flower lamp shades quickly became icons of contemporary design.

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Related: Rock n' Roll saves the day, Photos: Kirsten Hassenfeld at Bell Gallery, Séance, More more >
  Topics: Museum And Gallery , Brown University, Brown University, Brown University,  More more >
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