Phenomenology

Catalog text for Naomi Mendel’s solo exhibition at ArtVentures, 2019

Ulrika Carlsson 

The philosophical school of Phenomenology turned the tables on much prior theorizing about perception. What we see and hear, they argued, are not first of all a barrage of impressions that are only later interpreted and synthesized under concepts into recognizable objects—a person, a bird’s song. Rather, sense impressions typically reach consciousness already interpreted. As Heidegger put it, we hear the door slam, not some noise that we later infer must have been produced by the door slamming shut. To hear the sound without its meaning is a result of listening abstractly.

Naomi Mendel’s work is preoccupied with this dependence of perception on thought and indeed seeks to defy it, by walking perception back to that elusive stage before we are conscious of concrete, conceptualized objects. In other words, Mendel explores abstract seeing, and the border that separates it from interpreted perception. Her paintings let us linger in this stage of indeterminacy, losing ourselves in a disassembled world—an opportunity we are rarely afforded in real life.

Paradoxically, Mendel gets hold of this elusive moment in perception by letting visual data be further mediated by photographs and reflecting surfaces before reaching her. One group of works depicts scenes as mirrored in kitchen sinks, pots and utensils, and these reflections have, in turn, been photographed. Indeed we see the camera’s reflection in one painting, with that lens that simply takes in light-waves without interpreting them.

These are “accidental” mirrors—a soup ladle is not made to reflect the kitchen, and indeed does so rather poorly. We might notice their reflective capacity only when we while away hours in the kitchen cooking, cleaning and waiting for our family to come home. In this sense, Mendel’s work bears witness to a very domestic life, perhaps closed and boring. In the unseen foreground of the paintings—behind the easel—we can imagine a housewife losing herself in the virtual space she sees on the side of a stainless steel pot.

Even an ordinary, more accurate mirror can make a room look fundamentally different simply through the estrangement effected by the left-right flip: cleaner, happier, offering other, brighter possibilities. In the rougher reflections of Mendel’s kitchen and living room, the second-hand viewing gives us an even more alluring parallel universe, with ceilings appearing as high as those of a cathedral, clutter seeming suddenly to blend in with furniture, and laundry drying on a line looking like decoration rather than a chore. When we see two persons in one picture, the dreaminess of abstraction is suddenly undermined. But with their strange proportions, the two seem more like puppets than human beings.

When the abstractness opens the door to the unconscious, it also invites the fears that dwell there. The trees we see through window blinds can easily be recognized precisely as trees. Yet the distortion and diffusion leaves space for other interpretations, where the branches of one tree become the tentacles of a giant spider or robotic monster.

The fact that Mendel achieves these effects using the most mundane use-objects is an example of the collision that is present everywhere in her work: a collision we might tentatively understand as one between sacred and profane. In another series of works, Mendel portrays food or animals wrapped in plastic, or trash washed up on a beach—subjects which prompt an ambivalent response in the viewer. Here, the formalistic approach, with its happy complacency, stands in sharp contrast to the meaning of the scene we are witnessing. On the one hand, the paintings present nature violated: organisms maimed or asphyxiated by plastic bags. On the other hand, the plastic packages appear in their beautiful shiny materiality, with their pleasantly exact angles and soft, regular folds. Watermelons in ceram wrap and fish swimming while trapped in bags appear to melt into the manmade material, or to have adjusted to it, achieving an assimilation between nature and artifice.

Through the process of disassembling objects into colors and shapes, the objects are reborn on the canvas as enigmatic, fantastical new creatures. A plastic bag in a pond, for example, takes on the look of a magnificent jellyfish. The works are thus resigned to the subjugation of organic life by the heavy hand of human industry. Indeed, the works’ immersion in the surface of things offers a refuge from the distressing situation of the environment in our age. But as a result of being overridden by aestheticization, the ethical concerns act all the more forcefully on the unconscious. In the midst of gazing at the beautiful surface, an uneasiness comes back to haunt the viewer.