Jane Handel: Unrepentant Sensualist at The Basic Premise, Ojai
Review by Tom Pazderka
Photographs by Marianne Williams
Jane Handel’s exhibition at The Basic Premise ought to solidify the Ojai gallery’s reputation. So far, in its short run (the space opened its first show in November 2017), it has shown quality, thought provoking, and even aesthetically satisfying work by this region’s artists, to which I hope my work was a worthy addition.
Handel’s show is no different. Unrepentant Sensualist is an aesthetically sophisticated romp through Handel’s past 25 years or so as an artist and bookmaker. With a little bit deeper understanding and close looking, there are nods throughout the show to what sums up Handel’s inspiration and influence, namely Rothko, Beuys, Arte Povera, conceptualism—though there is no empty conceptual vanguardist posturing here.
The work feels and looks good, great even, if you’re into understated crypto-occultist collages. The relationships between objects and the artist’s markings are simple and naturalistic, lending themselves to interpretation that never seems forced or out of place.
And unlike much of today’s contemporary art, Handel’s work does not pander to specific groups or fashions, leaving room for the audience to draw their own conclusions.
Unrepentant Sensualist is made of mini-installations, vitrines and collections of detritus, that all together function as a large, single room installation.
Handel plays her own curator. She’s been collecting various objects since her time in San Francisco, some 30 years ago, some of which made their way into this show. Photos or bullet casings originate in Handel’s backyard. Case in point is an untitled assemblage from 1993, probably the best and most powerful work in the exhibition, utilizing casket lining swatches, overlaid with dime bags and bullets.
Mortality and death are a background presence in the mortuary-like setting. The whiteness of the walls of the gallery space, even the lighting and somber presentation of whites and the blacks along with the taupes of the aged book paper, transform the gallery into a mock mausoleum.
This may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it works.
On view are collaged crosses with photographs of unknown people and unknown origin, an almost Catholic presence of occulted knowledge, vanitas, ritualistic implements and symbols calling to mind the Golden Dawn or the O.T.O.
In the middle of the large wall display is a delicate-looking installation on a plinth appropriately named, “Vitrine with Dead Birds.” Though the dead animals may be hard to sell, as Matt Henriksen, one of the proprietors of The Basic Premise candidly told me, Damien Hirst has made a career out of it. Here the dead birds serve a completely different purpose from the pickled sheep and shark. Birds are omens, signals, the canary in the coal mine. Here they foretell the inevitable.
Speaking of omens, one of the works in the show can be viewed as a prophecy. “NIX” was made in 1998. For those familiar with strange news, the name “NIX” is strikingly similar to NXIVM, the name of a multi-level (read pyramid scheme) marketing company (read cult), that was established in 1998 and more or less brought down by the Feds in 2018 with the arrest of its CEO, crime boss, cult leader Keith Raniere on charges of sex trafficking and forced labor. “NIX” is a small display of bones on small plinth-like boxes inside a larger vitrine box with the extruded letters NIX above each. That there are three bones is interesting because NXIVM’s arrested top echelon included three people, Raniere himself, along with former Smallvile actress Allison Mack, and NXIVM’s president Nancy Salzman.
Jane Handel: Unrepentant Sensualist is on view Sept. 15 to Oct. 20, 2018 at The Basic Premise, 918 E. Ojai Ave., Ojai.