Magazine article Artforum International

Diana Shpungin: Stephan Stoyamov Gallery

Magazine article Artforum International

Diana Shpungin: Stephan Stoyamov Gallery

Article excerpt

It is perhaps axiomatic that many of the qualities of grief that make it an enticing subject for artistic exploration--the intensity of feeling it provokes, its inextricable ties with memory, the way its specifics are totally intimate yet its contours immediately understandable to all--are precisely those that make it such a problematic one to work with. Harnessing that intensity without squelching it; teasing out the memories in a way that makes them translatable; unpacking the details without feeling a need to wrestle every last one of them into some kind of larger symbol: These are poles that need to be carefully negotiated, but not so carefully that the work loses track of what's at stake in the emotional terrain of real, tangible loss.

Diana Shpungin, a resourceful, Latvian-born artist who has lived in New York for the past decade, has taken on this challenge in her first solo shows "(Untitled) Portrait of Dad." Shpungin spent the 2000s working in collaboration with the artist Nicole Engelmann, with whom she made stylized, performative videos, and this exhibition was, in an oblique but fundamental sense, a collaboration as well--not only with Shpungin's late father, a surgeon who died in 2006 and who was the indispensable focus here, but also with the late Felix Gonzalez-Torres, to whose work the show's title (and, in some cases, contents) explicitly nodded and whose spirit also hovered over Shpungin's estimable enterprise.

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There was a vivid sense of catharsis in the work, coming not only from the artist's own feelings about her father, but also from the liberation she clearly felt in showing on her own for the first time. The exhibition's dozen-odd works--comprising more than one hundred individual drawings, four hand-drawn animations, and a clutch of sculptural scenarios (including a ton of potatoes spilled for the taking, a la the Gonzalez-Torres piece from which the show takes its name, in a suitably claustrophobic cellar)--infiltrated the whole of Stoyanov's modest Lower East Side space. Yet for all the variety of media and approaches, it was the pencil that emerged as Shpungin's signal tool and operative motif: obviously in the drawings and animations, the former sometimes augmented with medical tape or bits of drywall, but also in the sculptural works in which objects--a broken chair in A Fixed Space Reserved for the Haunting; a dead citrus sapling, complete with fallen leaves, in / Especially Love You When You Are Sleeping (both 2011)--are painstakingly hand-coated in graphite. …

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