Monday, June 3, 2019

Nick Theobald: In the Shadow of the Kali Yuga

catalog essay for Nick Theobald


by Aimee Walleston

Honey, this is honey, the speech of thy tongue is honey; in my mouth lives the honey of the bee, in my teeth lives peace.” —Deccan Hindu vow

Honeybees make love to the world. They can do nothing more or less than this. Humans follow suit, only they’re not aware of this yet. They think they destroy the world. Sometimes this is true. According to Hindu prophecy, we are in the time of the Kali Yuga—an epoch of nihilism and annihilation, where humans are alienated from their true divine nature. Like a forest fire, humans scorch the earth. Like a forest fire, ash then nourishes soil, creating a womb to cultivate new life.

Over the past ten years, New York-based artist Nick Theobald has made art from beeswax. This medium has its own life, and its own energetic resonance—bees consume honey, which is then metabolized into wax and secreted from their bodies. This wax is chewed to a soft texture by the bees, and subsequently reconstructed into hexagonal vessels that store pollen and honey. When this substance is brought into synchronicity with Theobald’s relationship to the nature of things and the nature of life, it is once again catalyzed. Unlike a true chemical catalyst, however, Theobald is also changed and made new by the reactions inherent in his experimentations.

Theobald processes beeswax by melting it at different temperatures to increase or decrease viscosity. For his paintings, he layers the melted wax (which can be cooler and paste-like or oily-hot, and varies in color depending on the diet of the honeybees and location where it was produced) onto wood panels. The story of one wax—deep, burnt umber tones made by bees gathering nectar and pollen from buckwheat flowers—is altered by the story of another: a pale, translucent variant made mostly made from lavender, according to the hive’s beekeeper. The multiple strata of shading and texture Theobald creates from these waxes behave something like a palimpsest of altering landscapes; the dark, firework-like explosive figurations on the diptych panels of Utopia Utopia (2018) are absorbed and redressed by quieter shapes in lighter shades, bending the narrative toward something softer and more remote—less earthbound. A faint scrawl of text floats on the surface of the piece—it spells out, twice, the word “utopia,” a domain of beneficent nonexistence. In Assumed Risk (2019), pale, milk-colored wax hovers over a stormy topography of dark and golden tones, recalling cloud dramas. Erased and remade, the stories held in each work become the tales of Scheherazade: complex and enchanting, with each new story disguising the simple wish to remain alive for one more night.      

Like cave paintings where representation has evolved, rather than devolved, to abstraction, these surfaces suggest that there may be eternal truths that play themselves out in Theobald’s work. And as with the truest and most enduring forms of storytelling, they appear contemporary, or like they could’ve been made 200 years ago, or fifty years from now, or at the dawn of civilization. In this way, they bend time. This is a reading Theobald encourages. As a devotee of the Tarot de Marseille, Theobald sees the archetypal possibilities in these ambiguous forms, and through them illustrates the core driving principal of our human fable: we are here to find love, inwardly, outwardly, from above and below. This idea of love—where it comes from, and how to find it— pervades the works presented in “The Fountain,” shown in May 2019 at Galleri Jacob Bjørn. For Theobald, one finds love “by being at the heart of your passions, by returning to the fountain,” the same way a bee finds love by continually gathering pollen and bringing it back to the hive, a perpetual gesture that is something like a moving prayer.

In the first of nine lectures on honeybees, philosopher Rudolf Steiner stated that, “One only begins to understand the life of the bees when one knows that the bee lives in an atmosphere completely pervaded by love. On the other hand the bee is quite especially favored by the fact that, in its turn, it feeds upon just those parts of the plants which are also wholly pervaded by love. The bees suck out their food — which they then turn into honey — exclusively from those parts of the plants that are centered in love; they bring, so to speak, the love-life of the flowers into the hive.” Each of the pieces in this exhibition mediate love through both ecstasy and duty, transcending “work,” and existing in the work itself. They are the “chop wood, carry water” of being an artist in the studio, returning day after day to the same hive, gathering the same nectar and making it into something new, over and over again. For Life Line and Anchors and Escapes (both 2019), the artist created three-dimensional paintings by nailing a twisting river of hemp rope to linen canvas, then coating the pieces in dark beeswax. In both pieces, a stream of frayed rope interprets the fountain, releasing it from the frame. A gold-plated washer directs the spray; its alchemical material character harkening the inherent purity in all desire.

We are bound to the things we serve: our beliefs, our ideals, our own defined sense of what is pure. In this way, we are bound to love and its pursuit, however harrowing or disappointing. If the fountain is the place we must return to over and over, it is not without its dominion over us. We are bound to it, even when it tries to set us free. The bee suckles and stings, and produces both honey and venom because it has to: this is the purpose granted to it. This reminds us that finding and receiving love isn’t just about sucking sweetness—it is also about the promise of pain. For The Hanged Man (2018), Theobald binds buckwheat beeswax-drenched linen with hemp rope, creating a lingam form that sprouts upward from a steel plinth. Here we are met with the idea of domination and penance, the penetration of force and form, a sublimation—or at least an alteration—of the heady romance of flowers in the field. The sculpted fabric that composes the piece is bound with the classic “ladder tie” used in Shibari, the Japanese form of bondage wherein a rope master binds a submissive using ever more elaborate and decorative design motifs, often suspending the submissive far above the ground below.

According to Master K, “…the origin of Shibari is the Japanese martial art of Hojōjutsu. The earliest records of this art come from around the 1300-1500’s and the feudal era of Japan when the samurai were fighting wars. It was a way of capturing and restraining prisoners or taking prisoners for ransom.” While this mode of restraint has largely been replaced with more modern methods like handcuffs, there was a special categorizing logic that underpinned the many different styles of restraint categorized as Hojōjutsu. Each design was meant to identify the crime committed by the restrained individual, and the complexity of each design communicated the location, severity and context of the crime. Different restraint designs were used for women, and the styles also communicated a prisoner’s place in Japan’s social caste system. Samurais were bound so that they could retain their dignity, and when rope masters evolved their designs through time, they would often change them to reflect their own spiritual ideologies.

Submission is at the nexus of our free will and our mortal lives—we must submit to everything, even our most conflicted passions, as we must submit to our own ephemerality in our skin. We are all bound and tied to our desires, and we all experience the ways in which our restraints—like those found in Hojōjutsu—reflect both our individual “crimes” (illusory or otherwise) and the predilections of our masters. Referencing ideas of the spiritual above and below the flesh, for Theobald’s Bed of Nails (2018), the artist first bound a dark linen canvas with coils of hemp rope, and then coated the restricted surface with hot beeswax. The resulting work—freed from its rope and wax—suggests the stains of love, and the moment of release after constriction. In his typewriter work submission, submission, freedom (2019), Theobald employed a turquoise “Royal” Quiet De Luxe typewriter to type out a mantra of sorts, almost like a punished schoolboy acquiring penance by scrawling out the nature of his crime in chalk over and over again. The result of submitting to punishment is, eventually, the quiet pleasure of surrendering to what is, and what lies beyond: freedom.

In Hojōjutsu, according to scholar Luke Crocker, “There is also the tying involved in practices of Japanese torture, where the detainee would be bound in particular ways to restrain him as well as expose the maximum amount of bare skin for striking and inflicting pain.” Theobald’s 108 Lashes (2019) reveals the scars of surface layers of beeswax slashed over and over again, recalling the flagellation of the Christ figure. The spiritual is embodied in our temporal reality, in our quotidian raptures and discontents; it is rooted in three dimensions and submissive to those parameters, no matter how often we rise up into our higher forms. Yet the spiritual also always transcends, turning its bodily punishment into purification—reminding us that the wounds are, as Rumi said, “…the place where the Light enters you.” Theobald uses the number 108 to reference traditional malas. The numeral also held significance for Vedic mathematicians, who believed it to be the representative of “wholeness in existence.” Theobald’s slashed paintings are where landscape meets skin—they are our own world and also our own flesh.

Our wounds are the wounded world; they are the destruction that happens to us, and that is then reflected in the world around us. And what happens when a wound is completely penetrated? Perhaps it leads to our demise, perhaps it hollows out into a vessel by which we can fully receive our inheritance—our purpose—as earthly beings. Soaked Vanitas (2019) presents both options simultaneously, without commitment to either as a total truth. Composed of the skeleton of a sea sponge soaked in beeswax and mounted on a plinth of 19th century found wood, the form represents death, but only in its symbolic, metaphorical dimension: after the skeleton of a sea sponge is harvested, the animal does not die, but simply grows a new skeletal structure to replace the harvested one—a survivor’s take on reincarnation. As with classical vanitas compositions, the piece is an homage to human ephemerality, but it is also a literal interpretation of the term: vanitas is derived from the Latin vanus, meaning “empty.” Here, the empty vessel form stretches upward, mimicking the lotus as a symbol of the divine seized inside the human form, capturing and holding life inside its petals before releasing it into the ether.  

When the Roman poet Horace expressed the truism naturam expellas furca, tamen usque recurret: “you may drive nature out with a pitchfork, but she will keep coming back,” he suggested that humans consider themselves categorically distinct from the nature that they live within, and that nature is intent on dispelling this fantasy by any means necessary. When we submit to nature, we must also submit to our own nature, and this panics most people. Theobald’s work elucidates the cosmic dissonance of living in a world that believes in its own destruction. Vedic prophecy foretells that we will be in the time of the Kali Yuga—also known as the Iron Age, and represented by a bull standing on one leg, his other legs having been systematically removed in previous Yugas—for another 427,000 years. Others, including Rudolf Steiner, have put forth the idea that the Kali Yuga has come to an end, or will end very soon. It is Steiner’s belief that this period ended in 1899, and that we are now in the New Age. When describing the intentions of the beings that epitomize the Kali Yuga, Steiner claimed that, “Their aim is to harden and freeze up the earth, to shape it in such a way that, together with the earth, man remains an earthbound creature. He becomes hardened, as it were, within earthly substance and continues to live in the future ages of the world as a kind of statue of his past. These powers thus pursue definite aims, which undoubtedly appear as part of their own individual striving.”

Whether we live in the shadow of these beings, or whether we are still squarely in the Kali Yuga, it would be impossible to not witness the characterizations of these hardened beings in our present moment. There is an impasse at play in our world, and it suggests an alienation from the divine. One experiences in Theobald’s work a loosening of this rigidity. The flow of forms in Truce (2018) implies a metaphorical détente, an easing together of warring bodies. When we turn from love, we experience the hardness, pain and separation associated with the Kali Yuga—we feel the body in resistance, our divinity housed elsewhere. When the pitchfork of nature pierces us, we find peace, grace and love. We learn that, as Steiner stated, “our deepest concern should no longer be that of clinging to an old spiritual inheritance, but of absorbing the new light, the pure light, in our earthly life.”


Thursday, May 30, 2019

Friday, May 24, 2019

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Tuesday, May 7, 2019

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

CR/False Positives

Like a child’s game of make-believe, the positive-focus movement is dictated by a highly unscientific brand of magical thinking: you are the master of your fate and the captain of your soul, and if you don’t march into each day brimming with #goodvibesonly, you are actively courting tragedy, heartbreak, terminal illness, and financial ruin.
In this frighteningly simplistic worldview, it is you who makes the weather, and the only way to guarantee cloudless skies is to beam with sunshine. No less than Jack Canfield, the co-author of America’s #1 warm-and-fuzzy bible, Chicken Soup for the Soul, has stated that: “Successful people maintain a positive focus in life no matter what is going on around them. They stay focused on their past successes rather than their past failures.”
While one could argue that accomplished people are often spurred forward by defeat, the ideal of optimism endures. And its use as a gold standard (rather than a blue-sky aim) can be found—for Americans at least—in the very words that undergird our country’s ethos.
When Thomas Jefferson composed the Declaration of Independence in 1776, he asserted certain inalienable rights, including, “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” While “life” may be a given, and “liberty” an appropriate proposition given the nature of the document, “the pursuit of happiness” does give pause. Why happiness? As opposed to, say, justice, adventure, or truth? At the tail end of the 18th century, such sentiment was hardly l’air du temps. Just 17 years earlier, Voltaire wrote the satirical Candide, which scathingly critiqued the notion of a life lived in ignorant bliss by illustrating an increasingly craven world riddled with war, slavery, and cannibalism.

Yet, in an 1825 letter, Jefferson stated that “the object of the Declaration of Independence…was intended to be an expression of the American mind, and to give to that expression the proper tone and spirit called for by the occasion.” By eschewing total authorship, Jefferson is foisting his purview onto an imagined populous without consent. English scholar Carol V. Hamilton argues that, in fact, Jefferson likely cribbed his ideas on happiness from Enlightenment philosopher and empiricist John Locke. “Jefferson’s intellectual heroes were Newton, Bacon, and Locke,” writes Hamilton, “and it was actually in Locke that he must have found the phrase… Locke wrote: ‘The necessity of pursuing happiness [is] the foundation of liberty. As therefore the highest perfection of intellectual nature lies in a careful and constant pursuit of true and solid happiness; so the care of ourselves, that we mistake not imaginary for real happiness, is the necessary foundation of our liberty.’”

Alas, for Americans, “imaginary happiness” held an allure too seductive to pass on. Fast forward to the age of advertising, and we see the promise of happiness in a bottle, marketed through pert, polished images found in magazines and newspapers. In a 1925 piece for the Atlantic Monthly, economist Stuart Chase stated: “Advertising…creates a dream world: smiling faces, shining teeth, school girl complexions, cornless feet, perfect fitting union suits...” This was not an accident: the motivational impulses that these dark charms conjured in humans were well understood by the leading psychologists of the age. Led by Sigmund Freud’s nephew Edward Bernays, the self-styled “father of public relations,” psychologists who understood and capitalized on Freud’s pleasure principle—broadly, “the instinctive drive to seek pleasure and avoid pain”—were part and parcel of advertising that was increasingly “dreamed up.”

Perhaps the most infamous of these psychologists was Dr. Ernest Dichter, “the Freud of Madison Avenue,” who held a position at Esquire magazine before becoming the director of psychological research at J. Stirling Getchell’s ad firm. Time magazine quoted Dichter as claiming that “he is the first to apply to advertising really scientific psychology,” and Dichter as imploring an advertiser to “use his leadership to combat the guilt feeling among the American people, to convince them that it is all right to enjoy life.” And like a communicable disease, positivity infected everyone it touched in the 20th century, including the most avant-garde creative minds.
The legendary first encounter between John Lennon and Yoko Ono—in 1966, at a preview of Ono’s exhibition at Indica gallery—finds Lennon climbing a ladder to view a ceiling piece that Ono created, which was so small it required a magnifying glass for viewing. Of the piece, Lennon said, “In tiny little letters it says ‘yes.’ So it was positive. I felt relieved. It’s a great relief when you get up the ladder and you look through the spyglass and it doesn’t say ‘no’ or ‘fuck you’ or something, it said ‘yes.’”


And while there is something undeniably sweet about Lennon’s “yes” fetish, the contemporary iteration of positive focus takes things to the edge of extreme, bedazzling the affirmative in an ill-fitting cloak of timeless truth. In 2006, a film began to make its way into the lives of people looking for a way to exhume the yucky moral guilt that was dampening their happiness. The Secret, created by a modern-day Thomas Jefferson named Rhonda Byrne, promised happiness via “The Law of Attraction”: “the essence of that which is like unto itself, is drawn.” This law, touted as proportional to the law of gravity in its ubiquity, is underscored by the claim that this “secret” was not fluffy New Age mumbo-jumbo, but in fact ancient wisdom created by Hermes Trismegistus, the person or people associated with the hermetic tradition.

Armed with the idea that thinking happy thoughts was not a way to avoid reality but in fact a way to create it, some dreamers of a golden dream took the bull by the horns, and began organizing lifestyles based on the principles of The Secret. Steeped in sound baths and redolent of kombucha, this population is certainly on a healthier path than the typical crash and burns manifested by many whose lives become a never-ending series of setbacks and calamities, as pessimism is not likely to be any more factually accurate than optimism. But reality, for all, is filled with events and circumstances that are not in and of themselves joyful, no matter how wide one’s fake smile gets. As no less than psychoanalyst Carl Jung confirmed: “The more you deliberately seek happiness the more sure you are not to find it. It is therefore far better to take things as they come along, with patience and equanimity.” To say yes to all experiences, to life in its problematic totality, might be the better way to encounter moments of authentic happiness in the pursuit of meaning.

Monday, April 15, 2019

Wednesday, April 3, 2019


The bean played dress-up...
and cuddle party...

Wednesday, March 27, 2019


Kristina Buch wins Germany's Grand Hans Purrmann Award 

The German city of Speyer announces that Düsseldorf- and London-based artist Kristina Buch has been awarded its Grand Hans Purrmann Award. The prize awarded includes an endowment of USD 22,600 as well as an individual catalogue publication. The jury lauded Kristina Buch’s work in particular for generating unexpected and meaningful dialogues between the natural, cultural and social sciences.

“Kristina Buch’s work stands out for its ability to negotiate complex themes in a poetic manner. Language, symbols, images and materials dissociate and disintegrate before being brought together in unexpected forms, helping us to renegotiate what we think we understand, and to create entirely new ways of reading and of knowing.” -Hans Purrmann Foundation

The jury members were particularly impressed by her work "One of the things that baffles me about you is that you remain unmurdered." Created between 2012 and 2016, Buch’s subtly constructed installation negotiates the fine line between murder and censorship.

“As an artist whose practice employs myriad reference points—from entomology to theology to the history of technology—Buch is a unique voice in contemporary art, continually pushing the boundaries of our collective ontology with work that is precise in its concerns and adventurous in its character. Her collective body of work uniquely defines an artist in the present moment, but remains committed to addressing the eternal structures of reality using a methodology that is subversively nuanced.” -Aimee Walleston, author and critic, NYC

Kristina Buch (b. 1983, Germany) earned her MSc in biology and studied Protestant theology before turning to the world of art. She received her MA from the Royal College of Art in London and graduated with distinction from Rosemarie Trockel’s class at the Academy of Fine Arts Düsseldorf in 2013. In 2012 Buch’s work was represented at dOCUMENTA 13 and was exhibited at locations such as the Bundeskunsthalle Bonn (2018), MALBA / Buenos Aires (2017), Urbane Künste Ruhr (2014/2017), 14th Istanbul Biennial (2015), Kunsthalle Basel (2015), Index The Swedish Contemporary Art Foundation (2014), Emily Harvey Foundation NYC (2013), Manifesta9 p.e. (2012), the German Embassy London (2010). Her works are held in collections such as the Pinakothek der Moderne in Munich and the Museum Kunstpalast in Düsseldorf.
Buch taught at Imperial College London as tutor (2007–11), at Goethe University in Frankfurt/Main as assistant professor (2013–15), at HGK Basel (2015–16) as visiting lecturer under the “Next Society” professorship, besides lecturing at ISCP, Max-Planck-Institute, HKW Berlin, 60 years Documenta symposium, UdK Berlin, SAIC Chicago among others. She currently teaches as a Research Associate at the Institute for Art and Art Theory at the University of Cologne.
The first artist to be awarded the Grand Hans Purrmann Award in 2012 was the Berlin-based Israeli artist Dani Gal (*1975). He was succeeded in 2015 by the film and video artist Loretta Fahrenholz (*1981) and again in 2017 by Sabrina Fritsch (*1979).
The city announced also that artist Ugur Ulusoy (b. 1984, Germany), received the Hans Purrmann Sponsorship Award.
Hans Purrmann Foundation
Both awards were created by the city of Speyer and the Hans Purrmann Foundation in memory of the painter Hans Purrmann, born in Speyer in 1880. Hans Purrmann was a pupil of Franz von Stuck and a member of the Berlin Secession movement. He was also among the founding members of the Académie Matisse in Paris and remained a lifelong friend of his teacher Henri Matisse.