This month in London, David Zwirner plays home to Joy Revision, an exhibition of work by artist Andra Ursuţa, marking the Romanian-born, New York–based artist’s second solo presentation with the gallery. The exhibition will debut new photograms and lead-crystal sculptures that stem from a premodern conception of art as an essential tool to deal with mortality, loss, and grief.
Having just appeared in this year’s edition of the Venice Biennale, as well as a solo show at Zwirner’s Paris gallery, Ursuţa brings a new body of works here that connects the urgency of modern existential questions and a tight awareness of the history and criticism of image-making. By acknowledging the past life of the Mayfair townhouse in which the gallery is located, Ursuţa references Blinky Palermo’s wall paintings of the late 1960s, which – alongside the work of his contemporaries such as Daniel Buren, Donald Judd, and Sol LeWitt – introduced alternative methods of determining form into the artistic process. Palermo’s spontaneous paintings of arbitrary forms, generated by the lines or omissions of the built environment, questioned the precedence of foreground versus background, merging reality and fiction. Similarly, in Joy Revision, the townhouse’s architecture becomes a non-neutral framework that is at once a functional environment and a schematic depiction of it: a projective space onto which apparition-like images are placed.
Ursuţa’s photograms, a recurring aspect of her practice, engage with the history and technology of photography since the medium’s inception in the 1820s. As early as the 1850s, ‘ghost photography’ rendered pictures that purported to capture the unseen and conjure uncanny presences, suggesting that the living could commune with the deceased. The new photograms and sculptures in the exhibition also reference long-standing art-historical traditions more broadly, ranging from ancient death masks and funerary monuments to acheiropoieta (‘icons made without hands’) and domestic genre paintings.
As in much of her practice, Ursuţa’s photograms combine various techniques with an element of chance, resulting in compositions that seem to be occupied by mysterious presences and auras. Like Man Ray’s ‘rayographs’, Ursuţa’s works are made without a camera or lens, and she joins methods culled from early photographic practices with those from printmaking. In an analogue process, she creates multiple impressions of composite sculptures she has made from items in her studio, revealing these three-dimensional objects and their negative impressions on velvet treated with photoreactive dye. Their surfaces feature richly coloured rays that burst forth in palettes of scarlet, umber, blue, and violet, capturing a dynamic interplay of light and shadow among motifs that link the domestic, corporeal, and medical – including designer chairs, skeletons, gurneys, and equipment seen in hospitals. These spectral impressions also recall the Shroud of Turin and other religious relics in which a negative image suggests a bodily presence.
By contrast, Ursuţa’s four lead-crystal sculptures are the result of production processes that incorporate traditional and contemporary technologies such as lost-wax casting and digital modelling. Skeletal frameworks seem to emerge from draped figures, simultaneously phantasmal and corporeal. Redolent of ghosts, her veiled configurations point to a past tradition of attempting material transformations in the service of reviving the dead and suggest the cyclical nature of mortality. Together with the photograms, Ursuţa’s sculptures remark on visual art’s ability to give form to distress, frailty, and weakness, framing humankind’s inability to grapple with the awareness of our mortality and speculating on ‘the idea that the unspeakable can still be shown.
– A. Mannekin
Andra Ursuţa at David Zwirner [Exhibition Site]