Monday, June 17, 2013

"Kathleen Gilje: Revised and Restored," Bruce Museum in Greenwich, CT through Sept. 8

Kathleen Gilje, Lady with an Ermine, Restored, 1997, 
oil on panel, 15 ¾ x 21 7/8 inches,  
Courtesy of the Artist, © Kathleen Gilje 2013 

Leonardo da Vinci, Lady with an Ermine (Portrait of Cecilia Gallerani) 1490
oil on wood panel, 15.0 x 21.6 inches, Czartoryski Museum, Wawel Castle, Krakow

Kathleen Gilje is an art historian's artist: a brilliant scholar and detective who can deftly copy masterpieces from different eras and then, with just an addition or subtraction of elements, transform the imagery into a highly charged, contemporary topic.

Known for her “restorations” (the artist’s term), Gilje’s appropriations grow out of a long and careful study of the each work of art.  She physically masters the artist’s style, material, and execution. Then she scrupulously researches the iconography, artist’s life and the socio-political context of the work in order to deepen her understanding of the artist’s decisions. Often her academic investigations uncover background stories or encoded narratives embedded in the art or swirling around the artist’s milieu that may inform her analysis. 

Gilje’s sly additions or adjustments in the works derive from her considerable research. Then, in an effort to break new ground, she paints revised art historical readings. Gilje calls this practice “restoration,” because she fantasizes a restoration of the meaning of the work which may not be visible in the original work itself.

Kathleen Gilje, Woman with a Parrot (Restored), 2001, 
Courtesy of the artist., © Kathleen Gilje 2013 

For example, in her 2001 “restored” version of Courbet’s Woman with a Parrot (1866) she replaced the bird’s perch with a nude male figure to emphasize the phallic symbolism of the original painting. The parrot in the Courbet may represent the petit ami who is privileged to gaze upon the female model [i] or the Kamasutra.   

Gilje painted her “restoration” of the artist standing over the frisky model and then painted an exact copy of the Courbet painting on top of her “restored” version. She had her exact copy x-rayed in order to show her faux “original” underneath the copy. Viewed as an installation, the 2001 copy of the Courbet painting placed next to the x-ray film of the “restored” version sparks a variety of associations. The perch clearly becomes the proxy for Courbet himself, who has eroticized his model for his own delectation.

Gilje’s installation also comments on scopophilia: pleasure derived from the act of looking, an aspect of the male gaze.[ii] In Gilje’s “restoration” of Courbet’s Woman with a Parrot, the artist enters into his own picture and experiences the pleasure of viewing the model directly. (The grainy texture of the x-ray also suggests that we are witnessing the artist’s dream or fantasy as he paints the nude with ardent desire.)

Gilje’s ability to alter the original iconography to serve her interpretation of the work elucidates what she believes lies beyond the physical evidence. In this way, she embarks on dialogues with art history’s masters that seamlessly integrate her feminist readings and sometimes incorporate the very history of the work itself.

Kathleen Gilje, Danaë, 2001, 
oil on canvas, 72 1/2 x 80 1/2
Courtesy of the artist, © Kathleen Gilje 2013 

Rembrandt van rijn, Danaë, 1643, 
Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg

In her Danaë, Restored (2001), Gilje alludes to the vicious slashing and sulfuric acid attack on Rembrandt’s painting Danaë (1636), which occurred at The Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, on June 15, 1985.[iii]  Here, a puddle of acid flies through the air toward the nude heroine, instead of the supernatural golden shower of rain (Zeus’ transmogrification in the myth) which Rembrandt painted in the original. Gilje explained in a conversation that the golden shower in the myth is the Greek deity’s semen which impregnates Danaë with Perseus. Gilje views this sneaky sexual encounter as a romanticized act of non-consensual sex: a form of rape.

Rape, the violation of another’s body, is a perfect metaphor for the attack on the Rembrandt painting in 1985. Gilje noted that Danaë’s gesture in the original painting was meant to welcome Zeus as the golden shower into her bower. In Gilje’s “restoration,” Danaë’s raises an arm in a feeble attempt at self-defense, warding off the approaching acid. In the Gilje appropriation, Danaë’s gesture emphasizes the vulnerability of the woman in the painting and the artwork itself during the violent attack at The Hermitage. The title of Gilje’s work reminds us that Rembrandt’s Danaë is now literally a restored work of art.

Gilje came by her ability to reenact the masters’ touch as an apprentice in Antonio DeMata’s studio for restoration from 1966 to 1968. Then, she went to Naples with DeMata and his other assistants to restore masterpieces in the Museum of Capodimonte from 1968 to 1972. In 1973, she returned to New York City, her hometown,[iv] to work for Marco Grassi, where she restored paintings for various collections, including the Thyssen Bornemizsa Collection in Lugano and Madrid and the Norton Simon Collection in Pasadena. In 1976, she opened her own studio, restoring works for numerous public and private clients, such as Stanley Moss, Eugene V. Thaw, and Robert Dance.[v]

Kathleen Gilje, Bacchus (Restored), 1992
oil on linen, 37 1/2 x 33 1/2 inches
Courtesy of the artist, © Kathleen Gilje 2013 

Caravaggio (Michaelangelo de Merisi da Caravaggio), Bacchus, c. 1595
Uffizi Gallery, Florence

Gilje’s concept of the “restored” painting (her Postmodern Appropriations) dates back to the early 1990s. Her Bacchus, Restored of 1992 (after Caravaggio’s Bacchus, c. 1595) features plastic wrapped over the bowl of fruit with condoms strewn alongside the succulent choices Caravaggio depicted in his original. Gilje’s “restoration” suggests that the beautiful young man in the seductively draped toga was indeed “forbidden fruit” for the patron Cardinal Francesco Maria Del Monte, who commissioned Caravaggio’s work and delighted in beautiful young men.[vi]

 Gilje’s Bacchus, Restored belongs to the horrific first wave of the AIDs epidemic and historically marks the overwhelming concern that gripped the arts community. Simultaneously, Gilje explored the iconography of homoeroticism in art, which had recently gained recognition as “queer” theory among academic art historians and critics.

Today, a wonderful selection of Gilje's oeuvre has been beautifully installed in the Bruce Museum, on view through September 8, 2013.   This venue, which has welcomed numerous exhibitions of Old Master art, perfectly complements Gilje's paintings and drawings with its warm colors and informative text panels. 

The exhibition catalog deserves high praise too.  It features essays by the executive director Peter Sutton, critic John Yau, art historian (and subject in two Gilje portraits) Linda Nochlin, art historian (and subject in one portrait)  the late Robert Rosenblum, and an interview between the artist and art historian Francis Naumann (who exhibits Gilje's work in his gallery Francis Naumann Fine Art).  It is an elegant book, packed with valuable information about Gilje's work and the original pieces she copied - a delicious art history textbook in its own right.

Nevertheless, the catalog is not the real thing.  Seeing is believing.  This rare opportunity to see a large portion of Gilje's formidable body of work in public ends one week after Labor Day and then heads out to other parts of the US.  Catch it while you can!

(The New York Arts Exchange features two tours of Kathleen Gilje's exhibition this summer: Tuesday, June 25 and Tuesday, July 9.  Please visit our website for details and to make a reservation

[i] Mona Hadler introduced the notion that the parrot represents the privileged position of the male gazing upon the courtesan in her reading of her article “Manet’s Woman with a Parrot of 1866,” Metropolitan Museum Journal, v. 7 (1973): 115-122. Kam or Kamadeva, the god of love in Indian mythology, is best known for the Kamasutra. He flies through the air on his parrot. Therefore, the parrot can be associated with sensual love.
[ii] Laura Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” Screen 16, no. 13 (1975): 6-18, was very much on the minds of feminist artists and art historians during the late twentieth century, as well as the feud between Linda Nochlin and Michael Fried on gender bias and artistic intentionality in Courbet Reconsidered (Brooklyn: Brooklyn Museum, 1988). Kathleen Gilje directed my attention to the two articles in this exhibition catalogue.
[iii] The assailant slit the female figure across the stomach and thigh with a knife and then threw acid against the canvas. It took twelve years to repair. Danaë was put back on view in the Hermitage in 1997. (John Russell, New York Times, August 31, 1997.)
[iv] Kathleen Gilje was born in Brooklyn.
[v] Information culled from the artist’s website and interviews with the artist. Her own work belongs to collections all over the world, including the Musée Ingres, Montaubon; the Weatherspoon Museum, North Carolina; and the National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington, DC.
[vi] Donald Posner, “Caravaggio’s Homo-erotic Early Works,” Art Quarterly 34 (1971), 301-24.

(The essay is an excerpt from "Portrait as Performance: The Theater of the Self in Kathleen Gilje’s Series of Curators, Critics and Connoisseur," written to honor Dr. Alicia Faxon, professor emeritus, Simmons College, whose scholarship has always been a source of inspiration.  The complete version will be published in a forthcoming festschrift dedicated to Professor Faxon, organized by Simmons College, where I taught from 1989-1991.)

Best regards,
Beth New York

aka Beth Gersh-Nesic
New York Arts Exchange

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