At Smack Mellon, at Tamara Kostianovsky Between wounds and folds offers the most comprehensive glimpse to date of the artist’s moving and inventive work. Similar to his recent mid-career investigation at the Fuller Craft Museum, this exhibit includes five series of sculptures, spanning 15 years, each bringing together textiles used in plush Frankenstein versions of objects such as animal carcasses and tree stumps. Smack Mellon’s airy and industrial main gallery not only provides room for a large cross section of the artist’s work, but also serves as a fitting backdrop to the tender brutality of the art.
One of the oldest and best-known series by Kostianovsky, News Reus (2008-16), Latin for objective proof of a crime, sums up this tension. The sculptures represent the remains of minced meat carcasses that hang from metal hooks, as in a slaughterhouse. The works’ surprisingly realistic shapes (rib cages and mutilated leg bones) and colors (bloody reds, pinks and whites) are horrifying, but their materials (the clothes thrown by the artist) are soft. This disarming contrast exacerbates, rather than mitigates, the visual impact of the grisly evidence, alluding to human culture’s overly comfortable intimacy with animal abuse.
The feeling of intimacy arises from the ingenious choice and use of Kostianovsky’s textiles. It’s not just that she incorporates materials close to the skin of her personal life, such as clothes, towels, and discarded sheets. It is also the crazy energy and care – the frugal joy – with which she transforms these materials into mimetic amalgams. Traces of the artist’s hand are visible everywhere, from the countless segments and bands of fabric that make up the sculpture’s quilted surfaces to the awkward, oversized stitches that hold these fabrics together. The heterogeneous textures, colors and patterns, as well as the weight and translucency of the fabrics, are best appreciated up close, where the profiled textiles assume a topographic quality.
Take the Tropical slaughterhouse series (2019-ongoing), in which tropical flowers, birds and vines inhabit the pendent, slowly rotating cavities of meat carcasses as if these cavities were tree hollows. The interior of the carcass in “Cow Turns into a Landscape” (2021), for example, resembles that of the carcasses in News Reus, with pieces of red and pink frayed threads evoking loose, bloody innards and sections of pink corduroy and red and yellow striped candy cane fabric evoking organs. Still, a teal and midnight blue feathered bird perched on one side of the carcass cavity, and green tendrils of varying textures and colors grow on the opposite side, alluding to the brightly patterned floral padding that Kostianovsky uses to represent the obverse of all carcasses in this series. Incongruous and vibrant details inject elements of whimsy into otherwise gruesome images.
This funny sequence is best understood as a form of gallows humor told from the perspective of the reluctant perpetrator rather than the condemned victim. that of Kostianovsky Dead natures series (2015-ongoing) – large bird carcasses hanging upside down from meat hooks with their feet tied and wings outstretched – exemplifies this dynamic. Details are smart and winning again, like the jazzed up cornucopia of upholstery feathers that make up “Every Color in the Rainbow” (2021) or the fuzzy white bath towel collar of “Big Vulture” (2017). Yet the carvings refer to dark historical iconography, such as in the crucifixion of Christ and the dead birds that served as hunting trophies in Dutch still lifes from early modern times. As with other historical allusions to Kostianovsky’s art – to Chaim Soutin’s paintings of animal carcasses; to the domestic outpouring of the Pattern and Decoration movement – history repeats itself here like a farce.
The artist’s most recent series, Poultry decorations (2020-ongoing), also takes up historical images, with a campy bent. The works depict 18th-century French wallpaper motifs that exoticized the country’s colonial territories, a chilling and seemingly obscure cultural relic that has nonetheless been reimagined by a handful of contemporary artists, including Lisa Reihana and Rachelle Dang. Kostianovsky’s version features full-bodied textile birds – each living in the fictional wallpaper scene – jutting out from fabric-covered wooden planes depicting flowers. The thick streaks of the flowers have a camouflage effect on the more dimensional birds, making the latter appear less austere and less jarring than the dead animals that hang down and loom elsewhere in the room.
Kostianovsky’s tragicomic and quasi-taxidermal sculptures are perhaps best suited to represent the bodily implications of death, and nowhere is this trend more subtle or poignant than in his series of tree stumps and trees. branches made from the wardrobe of his late father, Flesh made by nature (2017 – ongoing). The series shifts the artist’s typical subject (from animals to trees) and materials (from her own clothes to her father’s) but retains its characteristic blend of realism and surrealism. The outer barks and mosses of the stumps are plausibly represented by broad-walled patches of corduroy, brown and green, while their inner rings are rendered in fantastic pastels. The bright, open environment of the trees seems arterial and strangely vulnerable, as if exposed in states of undress.
This sense of vulnerability is found in much of Kostianovsky’s work, especially through his use of soft materials to convey harsh existential truths. Yet series like Flesh made by nature and Poultry decorations demonstrate his willingness to find dynamic variations within his powerful signature style. When artists are known for a distinctive mark of work, it can sometimes become a trap in which they simply reproduce what they already know how to do. Between wounds and folds clearly shows that Kostianovsky is constantly challenging herself, testing new shapes and ideas, as she brings artistic life to the clothes our species uses to negotiate the boundaries between our own bodies and those of others.
Tamara Kostianovsky: Between wounds and folds continues at Smack Mellon (92 Plymouth Street, Brooklyn) until October 31.
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