Frottage: “Who does it anymore? Who really did it ever?” These questions are posed in the press release for the exhibition simply titled, Frottage. Referring to the technique of creating marks through the rubbing of objects, frottage is a French term popularized by Max Ernst, and adopted by the surrealist movement. Beginning with Ernst, and moving into artists working today, this exhibition is an intelligent meditation on a process quite easily perceived as passé. The show is organized to function just as frottage itself does, to reveal hidden qualities, narratives, meanings of things we may take for granted, providing us with a framework for renewed appreciation.
Ernst had discovered that through creating rubbings of objects, he, as artist, functioned as a medium through which the underlying material expressed itself. Unexpected characteristics would manifest, revealing narratives that he then embellished. Prints from Ernst’s seminal portfolio Histoire Naturelle are on display throughout the gallery. These surreal pictorials, suggesting a system of scientific classification, intermingle notions of science with lore, imagination, and intuition. Histoire Naturelle speaks to the subjectivity of knowledge: one illustration is a direct mimicry of Dürer’s earlier fantastical, yet popularly accepted depiction of a rhinoceros (however this time facing the reverse way, a visual pun on the printing process). Also on view are individual drawings by Ernst: the elaborate images he builds from the rubbings are testament to the fertility of imagination granted to the artist by this process.
Some of the most captivating works in the exhibition are those by Henri Michaux, interspersed throughout the gallery, and contributing, along with Ernst, to the historical foundation for the more contemporary works. Michaux’s images, revealing human, animal, and ambiguously anthropomorphic forms, convey both a visceral randomness and ethereal quality. There is an apparent effortlessness combined with whimsy as if, through these rubbings, the artist has revealed some kind of strange and charmingly idiosyncratic spirit world.
Some of the work in the show utilizes frottage as a typology of the archaic, such as Wallace Berman’s piece of mail art that contains a rubbing of what appears to be an early book cover of ETIDORHPA, exploiting the artifact–like quality of this object to create an exaggeratedly bewitched setting for his composition. Richard Hawkin’s mixed-media collage, Urbus Paganus IV.8, is headed by the rubbing of what appears to be the dedication from the base of the nude statue of Eros, of which the photo sits beneath it on a dark abstract ground, these combined elements portray a personal expression of veneration. Sam Lewitt’s Natural History is a nod to Ernst’s Histoire Naturelle, expressing the duplicity of cultural and economic value. Here fake rubbings of ancient Chinese coins are juxtaposed in a fabricated newspaper spread, along with jewelry ads, and an ironic endorsement for Icelandic travel amidst the economic collapse and threat of melting glaciers.
Other artists in the show utilize frottage for a more deadpan reveal of seemingly ubiquitous materials. Upon first glance, John Kelsey’s rhythmically simple abstract images may be read purely for their aesthetic and formal strengths. On a closer look, they are in fact rubbings of bubble wrap, a material that consists of practically nothing but air. In contrast, Melanie Gilligan’s wall from Prison for Objects, reads first as the object from which it was derived-- a wall of glass bricks-- and it is this immediate recognition of the source material that grants its contextual function as an artificial backdrop. The most enigmatic work in the show is In this installment: Dusting for fingerprints (5 suspects in custody K.K.’s whereabouts still unknown). Created by the elusive collective Scorched Earth, this page, presented as a rare historical document, contains graphite rubbings of what appear to be multiple sheets of plain paper. On the bottom right corner, and in contrast to the direct rubbings, are facsimiles of the signatures of Picasso, Jacqueline Kennedy, Leonardo DaVinci and Shirley Temple (and one cut off and unreadable), meticulously hand-traced in graphite.
Although unified by a single technique, the intentions of the artists in the exhibition vary greatly. When considered as a whole, the method of frottage may be seen as a reference to the act of unveiling, to the investigation of the obscure, and to the artist’s desire to question and refresh our perception of the familiar.
Providing a very insightful historical and conceptual supplement to the exhibition, a small, elegantly designed and illustrated catalog is available, containing essays by the exhibition’s curator and guests.
Images: Sam Lewitt, Natural History, 2009, Mixed media collage. 23 x 35 inches; Richard Hawkins, Urbis Paganus IV.8, 2009. Charcoal, oil, watercolor, and collage on paper. 20 x 15 inches; John Kelsey, Untitled, 2009, Graphite on paper. 11 x 8 1/2 inches. Courtesy of Miguel Abreu Gallery.