Cheryl Goldsleger, "Recent Work," Apr. 30-June 11, 2005, at Rosenberg + Kaufman Fine Art, 115 Wooster Street, New York, N.Y. 10012
One can still find wonderful art in Soho galleries -- Chelsea hardly has it all -- and one of the recent wonders was Cheryl Goldslegers exhibition at Rosenberg and Kaufman Fine Art on Wooster Street. Rosenberg and Kaufman is an old-time and still very good gallery on the fourth floor of a historic loft building. The climb up the narrow staircase is worth the effort: Goldslegers new paintings are materially satisfying as well as intellectually sophisticated.
Theyre a homage to unheralded women architects, but their exquisite art is not simply a platform for their feminist message. Indeed, its embedded in the encaustic and resin medium, as though preserved forever in precious if clouded amber. Theres an air of nostalgia about the paintings, but the medium keeps the message fresh, if only because its own troubled character suggests that the message is in trouble.
Goldsleger became known for her early architectural imagery -- dense diagrams of labyrinthine structures, implying that there is no way out, making them claustrophobically intimate. There is a more discreet sense of entanglement in later, strictly geometrical works, in which concentric circles and rectangles interact. It all looks logical, but its ingeniously illogical: lost in the maze of Goldslegers abstract constructions, and sinking into her murky surface, one experiences an absurd anxiety, suggesting that the constructions are metaphors for a self at risk.
Certainly the architecture of Margaret Hicks -- she was the first woman architect to have a design published (1878) -- and of Margareet Duinker, a 20th-century architect, is at risk of disappearing into oblivion. Goldsleger uses the plans of their buildings (among others), several of which were actually built, at once apotheosizing and memorializing them -- resurrecting and then entombing them in her art. She restores our sense of the importance of the achievement of these female architects -- all the more impressive because architecture was once a male preserve -- even as she mourns for them, and especially for their failed dream of a communal architecture.
Indeed, as Goldslegers choice of designs suggests, she believes that women understand the communal possibilities of architecture better than men, who tend to make more stand-alone buildings symbolizing the heroically isolated and socially alienated individual. Every design Goldsleger uses has a socially utopian -- dare one say socialist? -- purpose, suggesting that female architects had more idealistic hopes for modern architecture than male architects.
Here is a list of the plans Goldsleger uses (sometimes with modification): Hicks Workmans Cottage design (1878); the designs for the Kitchenless Houses of Alice Constance Austin (1914, in Llano del Rio, Ca.) and Marie Stevens Howland (1885, Pacific Colony Block Design); Duinkers abstract design for the pragmatic, modular, ultra-modern house, with adjustable walls, that still stands on Wagenaar Street in Amsterdam; Eleanor Raymonds design for the Solar House in Dover, Mass. (built in 1948); and Sophia Haydens design for Woman House at the Worlds Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893.
Each and every one of these designs suggests that modern women architects attempted to give abstract modern architecture a seriously human, more sociable connotation than it usually has. Several worked for famous male architects, such as Le Corbusier, but the implication is that the male architects wanted to build monumental trans-human structures -- structures that could triumphantly trash and devalue traditional architecture -- rather than structures that addressed basic ordinary human needs.
A building is a symbol of the body and self, Sigmund Freud tells us, and Goldslegers paintings suggest that the modern person has a problematic sense of his or her body and is too self-involved to be stably balanced. While her homogeneous grid suggests a certain passive equilibrium, her oddly agitated surface -- somewhat melancholy however inwardly luminous (the encaustic and resin trap and blur the light), and sometimes overlaid with ghostly drawings of architectural structures (raising the surface in even more nervous relief) -- is inwardly unstable. It seems about to collapse and obscure the design -- perhaps, after all, were looking at premature burial, indeed, architecture about to be buried alive rather than embalmed for posterity -- as though confirming that they belong to the past.
Indeed, what makes Goldslegers paintings and drawings distinctive and uncanny is that they are haunted by the living past -- they are about the return of the repressed, the specifically female as well as broadly humanly repressed -- suggesting that historical rumination is the only way to have an artistic future these post-heroic post-avant-garde days.
DONALD KUSPIT is professor of art history and philosophy at SUNY Stony Brook and A.D. White professor at large at Cornell University.