2016: STRANGE MELANCHOLY, Thoughts on the Worst Year Ever & “The Magic Realism of Hazel Janicki” at ARTneo
As a proud member of the CAN Journal team and an insatiable art-appreciator, I see more art exhibitions than the average person in the course of a year. Personally I’ve never been a fan of end-of-the-year lists, or best-of’s, and when the critics start rolling out their inevitable snoozy inventories I tend to just tune out. But in what has been a particularly challenging year, I feel the need to single out the exhibition “Strange Melancholy: The Magic Realism of Hazel Janicki”, curated by Lauren Hansgen. This show reminded me why I bother to look at art in the first place – a happy reminder in these troubled times.
And lucky for you (and us all!), the show’s run has been extended – so you can still see it for yourself at ARTneo this Third Friday. I was not familiar with Hazel Janicki’s work before I saw this exhibition, but I may have reached official “fangirl” status after the third viewing.
Janicki was born in London, raised in Paris, and her family moved to the Cleveland area after her father died. She graduated from Lakewood High School in 1935, and then attended the Cleveland School of Art (now known as CIA). In 1942 she married painter John Teyral, but the marriage did not last – she was divorced by the late 40s. The work that Janicki made during this time period (the 1940s and 50s) is particularly strong – enchanting is a word that comes to mind.
Curator and art historian Lauren Hansgen is responsible for this amazing exhibition, for which she also wrote an insightful and extensive brochure. In it, she describes Janicki’s style as “Magic Realism”: “Characterized by representational subject matter rendered with extreme realism and attention to detail… [it] often also included elements of fantasy and the unknown, hinting at intense emotions and alternative suggestions that lie just below the surface”. These qualities are exactly what drew me to Janicki’s paintings – there is a tension to them – a mood that is definitely anxious, but simultaneously lovely.
It’s hard not to “read into” Janicki’s paintings because she makes them so enticingly curious. Her self-portrait (above) was a study for the painting “Autobiography: Essences of the Past” (below), now sadly lost. But as you can see in an extant reproduction of the painting, her self-portrait figures prominently in the composition as well as vignettes from her childhood such as the Parisian gothic architecture. With a title like “Autobiography” it’s also hard not to take a psychological approach to the painting’s meaning, and Janicki does not disappoint. She loads her compositions with what seem to be very personal symbols – an empty birdcage, doors curiously opening, shadowy figures. Her ringed left hand hangs limply, awkwardly, almost as if she is presenting it to the viewer with a fiercely direct gaze. But then again, maybe not?
Other paintings like “Contemplation” and “Betty” take on a decidedly theatrical tone – but the crumbling stage set pieces and lack of narrative are more reminiscent of dreams than any known play. “Betty” seems to be a portrait, but there is no indication who this “Betty” was, or why Janicki puts her backstage, behind the scenes of the drama going on outside the frame?
“Morning on the Dock” was painted around the time of Janicki’s divorce – this is important to know because she placed herself and her soon-to-be ex-husband in the background of the scene. Back in the shadows, Janicki sheepishly holds his arm, her glance averted.
Perhaps not coincidentally, the location and objects in the painting resemble her husband’s work (John Teyral frequently painted scenes of life on the docks). In the foreground a woman sits at the dock’s edge (Edris Eckhardt, a well-known Cleveland sculptor was the model), surrounded by strange objects that read upon cursory glance as the kinds of things you might find at a dock, but upon closer inspection they almost seem sculptural, nonsensical. And the net draped across the composition stands in as a backdrop for the foreground action – again, a very stage-like composition – and Janicki is back in the wings, being held back by her husband, not a player, merely watching the action.
Janicki frequently employed recurring symbols and devices in her paintings – clowns, jugglers, dolls, theatrical backdrops, etc. But “Barriers”, painted in 1950, showcases my favorite of these motifs – the Cat’s Cradle string game. Three people hold the string in the first position of the game, but none of them are facing each other – additionally they are separated by a wire fence. If you’ve ever played Cat’s Cradle, you know that it takes at least two people to play – a fact which renders the scene even more futile. Their hands are all literally tied, no one can help anyone else. It’s a surprisingly morose image for post-war America, a time often lauded for its prosperity and energy. Janicki presents a world at odds, unconnected, maybe a bit dark, but very relatable to the current social climate.
To me, the hot bleakness of “The Striped Landscape” reflects the anxiety of the atomic age – this dismal scene of bare trees and dead grasses resembles a fiery nuclear winter. But unlike “Barriers”, here the figures are connecting, moving, helping each other? The figure in the foreground stridently looks forward out of the frame. Her expression and demeanor does not strike me as hopeful, but as this horrible year draws to a close, I choose to see her and the others as strong and determined. There IS a way out of this terrible terrible mess – just follow me. We’ll get there.
Many thanks to Lauren Hansgen and Christopher Richards for giving me access to these paintings, and also for our insightful conversations.