On her deathbed, artist Hannah Wilke shot a series of self-portraits to document the toll cancer had taken on her body. Far removed from the girlish charm of her famous S.O S. Starification Object Series, where the artist adhered gum wads to her naked figure, these images showed the once nubile Wilke marred and bedraggled by treatment just before her death in 1993. Published posthumously as the Intra-Venus series, this body of work actualized the body artist’s claim that, “To strip oneself bare of the veils that society has imposed on humanity is to be the model of one's own ideology.”
This sentiment comes to mind when processing Viaticum, Kaylin Andres’ solo show at Jenn Singer Gallery, co-curated by Ricardo Kugelmas. An archaic term used for the provisions one takes on a journey, Viaticum alludes to the 31-year-old’s own terminal prognosis as well as a journey she took to see a Brazilian healer. Composed of photographs from her trip and sculptures woven from hair she lost during chemo, the exhibition forms an abstracted portrait that is more poetic and reflective than Wilke’s bleak presentation of illness.
Andres’ self-portraits are printed on silk, and they flap in the wind every time the door opens. A fashion designer by trade, her sensitivity to material comes out in the purposeful juxtaposition of textures, translucent silk pinned to heavy felt frames. In the photographs, Andres plays a ghost of herself. Obscured by a veil of organza, Andres haunts the lush backdrop of the jungle-bound healer she sought out. “The thing I remember most wasn't a particular event, but the energy in the room as hundreds of pilgrims gathered to see the healer. It was a very somber, solemn atmosphere, one of grave silence and respect,” Andres explains. “I realized that every person around me, hundreds and hundreds of people, were all suffering immensely, emotionally or physically. And I was suffering, too. That was a powerful realization, and it was then that I really understood the value of seeking healing.”
Joseph Beuys’ belief in the artist-as-shaman is central to understanding Andres’ vision. The felt in the show, taken from emergency blankets, is a direct nod to Beuys, who Andres credits for inspiring the show’s philosophical underpinnings. “I agree that the role of the artist in society is that of a shaman, a healer—the artist has a foot in two separate worlds,” Andres says. “To make art is to take from one's inner world and make it material, to give it life in the physical realm. and of course, there is some magic in that transition. Our thoughts and feelings are diaphanous and ephemeral, yet our creation can be sensed and shared. With this we can communicate what is otherwise unknowable and save what would otherwise be lost. And finally, through this communion we can facilitate healing, both within ourselves and others.” Her words echo Beuys’ assertion that art is “the science of freedom.”
The wall-bound works add another dimension. Made from hair, wax, and religious paraphernalia, these morbid sculptures immediately invoke the work of Louise Bourgeois and Robert Gober. If one is to take the show’s title literally, then these are the small personal effects that Andres has taken on her long journey. Needle-points, made from strands of Andres’ hair and post-chemo wigs, strike the balance between what is precious and what is sinister. A kind of dark joke, these handcrafted pieces reference the crafts’ ancient roots as well as its current reputation as a waiting room pastime.
Like Bourgeois, Andres' sculptures are autobiographical. They don’t shy away from trauma; they face it head on and implicate the viewer in the tragedy. A contemporary memento mori, these images capture the artist’s suffering but also invite self-reflection. Through her visual storytelling, one is forced to reconcile with their own body and its mortality.
“Cancer's life is a recapitulation of the body's life, its existence a pathological mirror of our own,” wrote scientist Siddhartha Mukherjee in his Pulitzer prize winning book, The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer. At Viaticum, Andres looks directly into this dark mirror without fear. Leaving the exhibition, one feels a life-affirming jolt of courage—no doubt the legacy Andres and her work will leave behind.
Viaticum is on view until June 30th at Jenn Singer Gallery at 72 Irving Place. Click here for more information.