Lynne Cooke

“The resurgence of the night-mind: primitivist revivals in recent art”
“The Myth of Primitivism: Perspectives on Art” introduced & compiled by Susan Hiller. (1991)

Silver Skins, 108?x83?
Silver Skins, 108?x83?
A black humour informs Lee Jaffe`s malefic primitivism. in Silver Skins, for example, a number of pelts have been decora- tively arranged across a surface coated in silver leaf. The initial impression of a kind of natural history display is vitiated by the the myth of primitivism realization that these specimens lack skeletons and innards. Their role is purely aesthetic, and what this in fact entails rapidly becomes disturbingly clear. Subjugated, in that it provides luxury fashion goods, the feral has here been further debased to become the stuff of functionless luxury. If, in other words, that gesture which transforms raw material into art is one involving gratuitous wastage, how often will the results rise above an unabashed vulgarity and ostentation? lf Silver Skins alludes with corrosive irony to the normative function assigned to contemporary art, Venus Flytrap pursues further certain of the unpalatable contradictions inherent in this art. Four stoles, three mink and a muskrat, have been stacked to form a bizarre emblem.



 
The Life and Time of Sally Hemmings Part II 157''x170'' (metropolitan Museum of Art)
The Life and Time of Sally Hemmings,
Part II 157?x170?
Metropolitan Museum of Art
Each is surrounded by a halo made from fly-paper on which hundreds of these insects have immolated themselves: yet more are embedded beneath the gold leaf which elegantly coats the remaining surface. The dichotomy between the extrava- gantly lavish items, with their sensual seductive textures, and the repellent and foul, gives the work an extraordinary tension.Each is surrounded by a halo made from fly-paper on which hundreds of these insects have immolated themselves: yet more are embedded beneath the gold leaf which elegantly coats the remaining surface. The dichotomy between the extrava- gantly lavish items, with their sensual seductive textures, and the repellent and foul, gives the work an extraordinary tension.The appalling yet irresistible fascination it engenders recalls not only its namesake, but the hypnotic power of the transgressive, even the sacrilegious, for these stoles may be the modern counterpart to the copes and mantles, the sacred robes of priests and shamans of other ages and societies.


Jaffe’s work pivots on the theme of gratuitous excess, an excess which renders the destructive and savage inseparable from the desired and valued/valuable. His method often involves a brutal juxtaposition or stark montaging of the crude and the refined. the uncultivated and the so-called civilized, nature and culture. Rather than attempting to meld these antimonies into an encompassing unity he leaves open and insistent the fissures and dislocations. In The Life and Times of Sally Hemmings, Part ll, a monochromatic image of Jefferson`s black mistress is super- imposed on to a ground made of two-dollar bills pasted on to a rough wooden raft. The other half of the work contains an ornate gilded mirror, whose surface is dominated by the presi- dential head. Sections from Trumbell’s painting of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, reproduced on the banknote, have been copied beneath both portraits and the whole suffused with gold leaf, including a sinewy branch which bisects the two parts. Made from the raw material that comprises both the raft and the fake gold of the mirror frame, it sets the tone of incon- gruous intrusion and unwelcome likeness that links the various components.


Both Hemmings and Jefferson are, in one sense, spectres. But there are crucial differences. She is an errant ghost, not only because her image unlike the others does not appear on the currency, but in contrast with her lover, Jefferson`s face, placed on a reflective surface to the side of which a lighted candle bums, shines wanly through the tarnished glass: not a ghost but an icon. The falsely gilded, the blemished reflections, and the hollow illusions together create a compelling metaphor for the savagery and hypocrisy that normally attend extremes of wealth and power: the phoney splendour of these revered historical events and idealized figures, whose role it has become to embroider and refine the naked power of money, is exposed by means of a method that amounts almost to an act of blasphemous defilement. The contending forces are rendered naked and blatant. Jaffe’s works not only belong to that kind of modern art which Bataille so esteemed but are amongst its most compelling contemporary manifestations.