Looking Closer with Josephine Halvorson

Josephine Halvorson breathes life into marginalized and utilitarian surfaces and objects that most of us don't just disregard on a daily basis, we're even oblivious to their very existences. How often have you regarded a steam valve so closely that you could draw it from memory? Does your flat even have steam valves? Halvorson lovingly animates these neglected forms in What Looks Back at Sikkema Jenkins & Co (exhibition runs through December 4th), devoting one brushy oil on linen canvas per subject, rendering every curve and crack with equal attention. - Brian Fee, Austin Contributor

Josephine Halvorson | Steam Donkey Valve, 2011, Oil on linen, 18” x 23”, © Josephine Halvorson; Courtesy of Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York 

Josephine Halvorson | Tregardock, 2011, Oil on linen, 19” x 15”, © Josephine Halvorson; Courtesy of Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York

It's obvious Halvorson spent time with these sad characters — the empty, unidentifiably red-orange hued Sign Holders and the pristine (or never used?) Grippers, angling out menacingly at the viewer like Eva Hesse's early Tools. It is her modus operandi to execute the works on site, spontaneously, whether that means Shoshone, Califormia or Shoreham, England. Halvorson's interest in a physical and psychological relationship to a painting in progress, coupled with its relationship to where it was conceived, have been axioms of her practice since her post-undergraduate Fulbright Fellowship in Vienna. Just picture Halvorson sitting down, crouching perhaps, regarding Generator or Tregardock as she builds up their respective textures in layered oil paint. I looked up "Tregardock" and only found the titular coastal settlement in north Cornwall, United Kingdom, but Halvorson's rendering looks like a screen-less window or an unevenly empty picture frame (channelling Belgian surrealist Rene Magritte?), opening to a void of crackling blue-gray plastic. Tregardock's foregrounded nail snaps the composition into sharp relief. Meanwhile Generator looks a bit like an early Brice Marden monochrome locked behind a bright-red metal gate. It's one thing to see artwork references "everywhere", but it's notable they recur here in the most "normal" of subjects.

Josephine Halvorson | Generator, 2011, Oil on linen, 34” x 28”, © Josephine Halvorson; Courtesy of Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York
Josephine Halvorson | Barrier, 2011, Oil on linen, 36” x 42”, © Josephine Halvorson; Courtesy of Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York

Many of these subjects directly reference the exhibition title What Looks Back by "gazing back" at us, as if by acknowledging them we contribute to their respective autonomous realities. Or perhaps it is Halvorson acting as a conduit to their physicality, just by painting them "from life". This highlights pareidolia, perceiving the human face in inanimate objects, so mileage may vary depending on the viewer. I noted a droid-like visage within Steam Donkey Valve and the waxy Mars-red surface of Barrier, echoing the planet's Cydonia-region "Face" or even a battered school-lunch tray from some Golden Age extraterrestrial. Halvorson's charmingly titled The Heat Inside is almost more an old storyteller than a furnace, its brick-lined, drawer-like mouth slightly ajar, whimsical fire-lights winking in its "eyes". If such ready identification with a furnace and steam valve sounds funny, check that American Express commercial composed entirely of "sad and happy faces" on YouTube. Then consider Cracked Back, another Mardenesque rendering (or Rothko color-field, had he ever switched to deep grays), its steely surface captured in brushy strokes, the titular rusted crack a distempered frown beneath the stove's emblematic "nose". If such little treasures permeate our daily lives as in the gallery, we should begin paying closer attention.

Josephine Halvorson | The Heat Inside, 2011, Oil on linen, 38” x 30”, © Josephine Halvorson; Courtesy of Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York
Josephine Halvorson | Cracked Back, 2011, Oil on linen, 18” x 14”, © Josephine Halvorson; Courtesy of Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York


Josephine Halvorson was born in Brewster, MA and currently lives and works in Brooklyn, NY. She holds a BFA from The Cooper Union and an MFA from Columbia University, both in New York City, and has exhibited extensively throughout New York. What Looks Back is her second solo show at Sikkema Jenkins & Co, running through December 4.

Brian Fee is an art punk currently based in Austin, TX. His culture blog Fee's List covers his three loves (art, film and live music) occurring in his other three loves (the Lone Star State, the Big Apple, and Tokyo).


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