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Rhonda Zwillinger - Black Swan

All That Glitters
By Carlo McCormick

Once upon a time, in a land quite near but very far away from the present, there lived an alchemical artist of urban detritus named Rhonda Zwillinger. She was a maker of magical marvels, beauteously bangled and sequined spectacles that filled all the people with guilty pleasures and whimsical wisdom. Then one sad day her special gift of transforming the reviled relics of discarded glamour into talismans of our ambivalent desires was taken away from the kingdom of culture by the wicked toxicity of the material world. It turns out that the artifice of fabricated beauty was laced with the hidden industrial hazard of an unnaturalism that stalked the organic bounds of being like a malevolent germ of self-doubt. Biologically banished from the realm of novelty to the remote reaches of an elemental asceticism, Rhonda nested in Saharan safety, like a mystic wandering the desert in search of meaning, learning to slake her thirst for synthetic sensations on the imperceptible ideations of isolation. Over time people treasured her tawdry relics of resplendent scintillation like iconic mementos of some faded drama/beauty/drag queen, all the more precious and impossible for the vague shadows of tragedy lurking within the glare of their daring.

One seldom speculates on the final fate of a falling star, the light it shines just brief enough to make a wish and maybe thank some other for the wonder of witness. But journeys are funny that way, the sound of leaving not so different from the echo of return. The seeking so often only attained with the click of some ruby slippers and the incantation that there's no place like home, trips like nature both round-fared and guaranteed that even when you do come back to the same place you will be in fact entirely different. Rhonda Zwillinger, the prodigal daughter of Pop's guarded goddess, has indeed returned. Not so young as before, she still twinkles, sagacious but still kind of nuts, honed and toned but far from drab. Rhonda Zwillinger has recaptured the essence of her illuminate vision as something decidedly less over-the-top that still gets over. More stunning than ever, her art is now a mesmerizing seduction rather than a manic assault. It's as if one of those pathologically hard-partying "It Girls” traded in her fuck-me pumps for a manner of elegance that is as timeless as it is universal. The medium has changed and the meaning has shifted, but where it stands in our world is much the same - at the full length of longing, where the skin is deep, the low is high, the circumstantial is personal, and the fictions we weave are the last vestments of teleological truth.

Zwillinger's long hiatus from the exercise of her particular post-feminist vision and the near terminal sickness at its cause did not of course stop her from being an artist. Her creativity is compulsive, and even in the worst of times she managed to give voice to the disease MCS (Multiple Chemical Sensitivity) in the sole medium she could find that was available in her severely challenged condition (digital photography). She also helped the great auteur director Todd Haynes humanize this paradoxical conflict between self and environment as part of a larger social dis-ease in the movie Safe. Much has been said by those of far greater expertise about Zwillinger's landmark publication, The Dispossessed, that falls outside of the rapture I experience with her fine art. We might suggest here that those missing years from the art world proper are neither blank nor fruitless should interested parties not consider them of equal merit. Here however, it is more important to express how Rhonda's art, which was so inspirational and influential to me as a quite young critic during the early Eighties figures not only into the formation of our aesthetics and social mandate for art but how, in the myriad ways it has now evolved, continues to inform.

The moment we shared, historically reduced (and in this subtle way diminished) as East Village Art, was for better and worse, a youth-oriented confrontation against the established values of late modernism. In time, revisionists have come to understand that it was, without the presumptions of theory (that is intellectual French scrutiny embraced by the American academy), a nascent and largely intuitive fumbling towards Post-Modernism. However, what's significant in this is that it presented rage as an expression of joy, disenfranchisement as a commonality (or community of outsiders) and re-formed highly individual perspectives through a social filter predicated on a democracy and accessibility that still remains rare in the art world. That is, artists could be silly or sentimental and yet serious, embrace vulgarity as an alternative manifestation of beauty, and reference the demonology of the status quo as an avenue to explore not simply one's inherent distrust of received values but the ambivalence of our ongoing attraction to them. By such a measure Rhonda Zwillinger was the quintessential figure of our savant glory. When the populism waned and the perpetrators of authority had their final say, everything important that happened in that short time was simply dismissed as kitsch. What was so remarkable about Rhonda was that she understood the underlying compliment in this insult because, well, she understood the degenerate and subversive nature of kitsch better than all the experts for whom this would always be an irredeemable term.

If memory serves, the flash point that galvanized Zwillinger's art at that time was her particular reading of Clement Greenberg's proclamation that "For every avant-garde there is a rear-guard, and that rear-guard is Kitsch." Considering the hybrid character of her objects, somewhere uncomfortably between furniture, apparel, decorative, applied and fine arts, the iconoclast impulse that would compel her to rail against such authority is easy to locate. In light of her latest work however, the resistance and resonance embodied even now in this mature mid-career artist, suggests just how much more was really at stake. The notion of Camp, germinated in an American, largely homosexual literary scene and conveyed to the arts through Susan Sontag has taken a rather passè back seat to the far more prevalent forces of irony. No two things, so seemingly similar could be more diametrically opposed. Wearing a certain message on your tee shirt is not only a far cry from the kinds of visual excesses Rhonda indulges; the fundamental difference in intent is that Zwillinger never intends to make fun of anything - except maybe in prior times herself. Even when in her early work the ornate gave way to the gaudy, there was no question of her sincerity.

There are significant formal issues to consider when we ask why and how the art of Rhonda Zwillinger in 2007 differs from what she did more than two decades ago. In the best way that we think of a persistence of vision, the differences articulate the continuum. The most relevant dynamic in this mid-career spanning comparison is Zwillinger's methodology of the ornate. What has been consistently reviled through centuries of aesthetics is the place of maximalism in relation to minimalism. Knowing of course what was simply too much, her pursuit of an almost fetishistic busyness was highly personal and creatively pathological. That she would not settle for less was also a comment on the reductive tendencies of formalism itself. To the purists, her impossible impurity was rife and redolent of an ecstatic impulse at once too girly and decadent for most to understand its compositional sophistication. Today, the anima still overflows, but with such a grace, with an almos t architectural integrity, and yes, a clearly articulated appreciation of simplicity as minimalist language - quite evident in the eloquence of her underlying sculptural armatures. The surfeit is essential to the point of being elemental. Arriving at a point where the orthodoxy of Feminism gave way to a multiplicity of feminisms, Zwillinger's "woman's art" denied the corrective austerities to express a chick-in-the-city vitality (between Mary Tyler Moore and Carrie Bradshaw) as part of a patriarchal lineage from the found object through assemblage.

A little quieter now, Rhonda Zwillinger's art is just as fierce. Maybe it's personal (or biographical), but what was so deeply tethered to the urban mind-set has subtly shifted to more pastoral pastures. Easily it's merely the obvious inclusion of old farm implements, but in them the oxidizing effect is as brilliant and mesmerizing as the swarming caress of the beads themselves. People like Rhonda move to places like New York City because by temperament they could be no place else. Her greatness as an artist who was forced by misfortune to start life all over in an environment so completely unlike this urban maelstrom, is her ability to redirect the vernacular of woman's liberation back to the original tongue of self-empowerment; craft. There's a continuity of self at work in this - she can list generations of fine art and craftswomen in her family - but its vitality here is predicated on the most basic of aesthetic precepts. Rhonda Zwillinger does not make cold work; it is hot. Still working with what is available - only now restricting it to that which does not hurt her body- the deep heart of her work lies in the stuff we're not allowed to talk about. Zwillinger may have begun with the impolite subtext of bad taste, but today she speaks of the most forbidden of fine art's guiding principals, the spiritual. Where one leaves off and the other begins, is a chasm of rapture we fall into whenever we step off the path of religion into the Dionysian dance or the divine light of Abbot Suger. We asked the artist if she might not be thinking of costumes, clothing, ornamental accessories, tribal garb… and she answered yes, yes again, yes as much as to anything anyone might ask. But it's not just reference for her. Rhonda Zwillinger is a cargo-cult, an accumulator of what others refuse, who builds from it all shrines to a divinity that is culture itself.


Carlo McCormick
CURATOR AND CRITIC



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