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ART REVIEW: ‘A Change of Place,’ extraordinary new work at Jack Shainman’s School

"A Change of Place" is nothing less than a major cultural event. We are genuinely fortunate that it is happening in our part of the world.

Here at the Berkshire Edge we are big admirers of what Jack Shainman and his team are doing at the School in Kinderhook, New York, and we make no apology for having already featured them here and here.

Currently, you will find another remarkable exhibition at the School. It is called “A Change of Place” and, to be strictly accurate, it comprises four separate solo exhibitions hung side by side. Any one of them would make the trip to Kinderhook worthwhile on its own, but the best of a spectacular bunch features the extraordinary paintings and sculptures of Hayv Kahraman.

Kahraman was born in Iraq in 1981 and was then an émigré twice over: she moved to Sweden as a child and then came to live and work in this country. No wonder then that her work resonates around issues of memory, identity, belonging, dislocation, and – perhaps most obviously – war. This is quite a cocktail, and it is to Kahraman’s enormous credit as an artist that, rather than falling into impenetrable confusion, her work is able to carry this range of meanings in a poetic and recurrently stimulating whole.

There is a group of new, initially odd-looking Kahraman works in “A Change of Place.” The linen surfaces of paintings like “Concealed Weapon,” “Strip Search,” and the series called “Shield” (all of which were made this year) are punctured in regular geometrical patterns. This allows tiny points of what turns out to be acoustic foam to poke through, and their subject is the use of sound in warfare. Kahraman remembers her fear as a child when she heard air raid sirens and the horrific use of long-range acoustic devices that transmit localized, extremely high decibel noise. Paintings like these not only suggest punctured human flesh, but – in that they have actually become absorbers of sound themselves – women’s attempts to use their bodies to protect their loved ones.

Decagram No. 2, by Hayv Kahraman.
Decagram No. 2, by Hayv Kahraman.

At the heart of Kahraman’s work we find her experience of gender and racial politics. In particular she is aware of her status as an Arab woman, and of the double-edged exoticism that this adds to her sexuality in the eyes and minds of many Westerners. The naked and semi-naked women that people her pictures are drawn from photographs that she takes of herself. She then subjects them to a range of distortions: their waists are pinched, their child-bearing hips are emphasized, their skin is lightened, and, though their luxuriant eyebrows are accentuated, their body hair more or less disappears. It is as though she has remodeled herself in keeping with a whole gamut of different desires. “I’m a commodity,” she proclaims. “My paintings are a commodity … I want you to buy me so you can look at me all day long. I’m your little oriental pussycat. You can pet me. I don’t bite.” This theme is ubiquitous in Kahraman’s work, though it is perhaps most pointed in a wall relief from 2013: “Decagram No. 2” at once conceals and reveals a pair of naked women. They contort themselves behind cut out screens. These are made to suggest a “Mashrabiya” ­– the latticework screen incorporated into traditional Iraqui dwellings to conceal women from the gaze of outsiders. But in Kahraman’s version the cut-outs in the screens are taken from cross-sectioned digital scans of her own body and, while one of the women looks modestly to one side, the other stares brazenly out at the viewer. It is a most disconcerting work.

There are 18 pieces by Hayv Kahraman at the School, enough to keep you occupied for hours. But there are three other exhibitions here that are almost equally engaging, and all of which will richly repay your time and attention. There are Pierre Dorion’s oddly unsettling paintings based on the blandest of architectural photographs; Garnett Puett’s phenomenal sculptures and installations made in collaboration with swarms of bees (that’s right); and Richard Mosse’s photographs, some of which are shot on Kodak Aerochrome, an infrared film that renders landscape in a range of high value reds and pinks.

Then, once you’ve taken in all of this, there is a little memorial exhibition of Malick Sidibé, the trailblazing Malian photographer who died in April.

Taken together, “A Change of Place” is nothing less than a major cultural event. We are genuinely fortunate that it is happening in our part of the world and open to everyone at no admission charge every Saturday through the fall.

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