Museum as Muse at the Flatiron Project Space

Museum as Muse, Installation, Image courtesy of Leigh Behnke

A favorite experience of mine is to visit the Metropolitan Museum without a show or work of art in mind to see. I enjoy wondering the galleries until I come across something I had not noticed before and then spend the time looking and analyzing the work. This experience is likened to one I have recently had at “Museum as Muse”, a show curated by Leigh Behnke, consisting of works by the artist herself, Joe Fig and Peter Hristoff. The show is not at a sprawling Chelsea gallery or at a small, but relevant Lower East Side venue. It is tucked away within the confines of an academic institution, School of Visual Art, located on 21st Street in the SVA Flatiron Gallery Project Space. As the title suggests, all three artists have used the museum in some capacity as a starting point for their work.

Leigh Behnke depicts in her paintings the interior of Kunsthistoriches Museum in Vienna and integrates various sculptures and artifacts from within the collection to aid the overall composition. As a result, her re-contextualizing of the source resonates with a surrealist aesthetic in the construction of imagery. But what is the take away? If we look at “Your History Is Your Future: Orlando” we see an aguishly expression of a bust engulfed in flames that lay below. Behnke’s painting continues the linage of artists such as Delacroix, Tiepolo, or Redon, who all depicted the epic Italian poem by Ludovico Ariosto. The poem is about a complicated love story between Orlando and Angelica which takes place in Europe and the Middle East during the reign of the Frankish king Charlemegne. Orlando abandoning his post of Charlemagne in Paris to find his love, Angelica and in his pursuit he finds that she has run off with another, Merdoro. Perhaps Behnke is describing the moment when Orlando is in despair of Angelica’s engagement with Medoro, and the flames beneath are that of the fires cast by the frustrated lover throughout Europe and Africa.

However, Behnke’s interpretation of the poem is contextualized within the confines of the museum, with surrounding vitrines and Orlando’s sculptural bust. If we consider the depiction of the story within the context of the museum, the poem’s narrative changes. The fires depicted in Behnke’s painting are ever so reminiscent of the conditions we face today, due to climate change and human negligence. With the fires blaze inside the museum, perhaps what the artist is trying to describe is that our own neglect is destroying our history and future. Like Orlando, our society and culture have abandoned our post on the environment. The museum and its artifacts are part of the fabric of culture and in this case, our humanity is deteriorating. When we look at another work by Behnke, we see a figure falling, about to be cradled into a place of comfort. Perhaps there is hope as Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī states “Grief can be the garden of compassion.”

YHIYF:Orlando, 2016, 16 x 12, oil and pigment ink on canvas mounted to board. Image. Courtesy of Leigh Behnke

Fig references The Metropolitan Museum collection and the Guggenheim’s recent exhibition of Hilma af Klint and other significant museums. Similarly to Behnke, Fig paints parts of the museum’s collection. However, his perspective includes the museum goers observing the works of art. As a result, what transpires is a naturalization between the depicted observer and object. The work of art and viewer’s experience become equally important. A good example of this is in the painting titled Hilma af Klint/Guggenhe in whereby shapes, color, and patterns are echoed both within the composition of the af Klint paintings and that of the space of the museum floor and individuals looking at the work. Both viewers and substances depicted become one. Oddly, these paintings in their scale are an eerie reminder of the role Instagram has played within the context of looking at works of art. Conversely, these works are similar to his previous diorama sculptures that depicted artists and their studios. These paintings are not just to be “liked” or “swiped”, they are more of an enticement to lure the viewer back to the historical places from which they originate.

Hilma af Klint/Guggenheim (Overview), 2019,19” x 24”, Oil on Linen mounted on MDF Board

In Peter Hristoff’s on-going series, Everything and Nothing, the work is a kind of a visual mind map. Hristoff pulls from an array of sources within art history, reassembles them and creates new narratives based on certain formal elements. As a result, what is created becomes a complex visual harmony that given its origins would never equally share the same plane. This part of the work I find most intriguing. He is using shapes and silhouetted figures dancing amidst painterly glazes of color to conceal not so much their identities and sources, but rather to reconstruct new sceneries of appropriation
history . The three artists in the show describe their relationship to the museum through their unique but pointed method of creating. The museum is a place to preserve as it holds the fabric of our history. All the artists make a profound contribution based on their relationship to history and their muse.

Everything and Nothing- Ongoing series, 2007-201911x 16 each, Mixed Media. Courtesy of Peter Hristoff

Museum as Muse
An exhibition of works by Leigh Behnke, Joe Fig, and Peter Hristoff. Curated by Leigh Behnke, the exhibition will be on view from 02/06/20, through 03/08/20, at the Flatiron Project Space, 133 W 21 Street, New York, NY.