The ‘Unheimlich’, translated into the English term ‘unhomely’ or ‘uncanny’, is a concept developed by Sigmund Freud that refers to a feeling of unease and discomfort arising within a familiar environment or situation. The term therefore indicates a disturbing experience which can lead into fear and distress, often coming from repressed thoughts that are unconsciously familiar to us, but have been pushed out of our conscious awareness. As such, the "Unheimlich" and its opposite, the "heimlich" or “homely", are intrinsically connected, as the former originates from and can be traced back to the latter. This concept has been widely explored by artists who aim to delve into the depths of human psychology and bring to light the darker aspects of the human experience.
The exhibition ‘A Gift to the Dark’ investigates the concept of the ‘Unheimlich’ through different artistic approaches, often playing with the metaphorical dichotomy of light - the familiar - and darkness - the unfamiliar, the unknown. As such, the showcased works create a dialogue between familiar and unfamiliar spaces, representing the human collision between mental stability and repressed feelings, and inviting the viewer to confront and explore them. Such approach, conveyed across the visual aesthetics of the artworks and their techniques, is displayed all over the exhibition as a celebration of human psyche’s hidden truths. Each artwork is indeed of powerful impact and it is able to arise questions on what is known and what is unknown, encouraging self-reflection and the confront with inner fears.
In The Daydream, by the the London-based artist Georgia-May Travers Cook, a very conventional figurative composition is characterized by a provocative and uncomfortable gesture, which becomes the main focus of the painting. A woman sitting on a traditional homely environment is wrapping two long hair braids around her neck while her body reclines back on the armchair and her face looks at the above area, not included in the painted image. This movement is presented in a very unconventional way, which the viewer is not able to entirely detect. What the women is looking at is not explicit and her smile is unclear, perhaps deriving from boredom or desperation. Similarly, on the painting a Gift to the Dark, where the artist depicts a person reading a book while two kids are listening, the familiar setting is covered by an intrigued emotional connection. The subjects are all sit down on the floor of a not specified room underneath a light and thin blanket. This childhood shelter evokes nostalgic feelings of lost time, past memories and innocent behavior, while also connecting to the imaginary of the night, darkness, mystery and secrets.
Paulina Aumayr, the youngest artist exhibited, born and based in Vienna, equally presents something familiar yet strange. In her painting Wider Da, Aumayr employs the familiar setting of a bathroom and the act of self-reflection to create a deeply unsettling and eerie atmosphere. The apparent homely environment and the subject’s simple act of looking at their reflection on the mirror are here masked by some sort of obscure, disturbing features. The painting’s perspective is unconventional, detaching the point of view from the image’s focus, some blood is moving down the sink drain and part of this latter is duplicated, transmitting a disoriented vision of the space, as to highlight of the woman’s current mental state. The artist makes use of these elements to create a disorienting and disturbing vision of the space, evoking feelings of anxiety and fear, and at the same time Aumayr encourages the viewer to question and investigate their own inner state by empathizing onto the painted woman.
As the title 'A Gift to the Dark' suggests, the contrast between light and darkness is of central attention within the exhibition, alongside the imaginary of eerie and oneiric scenes. This aesthetic is particularly conveyed across the work of Beatrice Alici and Alex Macedo, where complete dark settings are shaped only by the power of light. In her paintings, Alici drives the viewer's eye towards the discovery of small details that fade within darkness, like nocturnal scenes which often include magical or fairytale-like figures that detach from our traditional idea of human. With a specular approach, Macedo’s works depict lightened subjects on dark backgrounds, following old masters painting’s technique. This way, light becomes visible inside complete darkness, as representation of the power of reason over repressed fears and weaknesses.
Juxtaposed to the work of Macedo are the paintings by the Viennese-Canadian artist Esther Martens, which transmit a different aesthetic, not focused on the contrast between the light and the dark, rather between human and non-human. This concept, directly connected to the perception of what is considered familiar or unfamiliar, is conveyed by the artist across two main aspects: the subject matters and the perceived texture. Martens indeed shifts the conventional understanding of ‘human’ by painting animals with human behaviors - like in Fragment 1, where an horse is crying desperately - through a gloss finish inspired by porcelain ornaments. The artist is therefore able to put the eye of the viewer in front of an absurd figurative composition, where tridimensionality becomes two dimensional and animals are humanized.
In India Nielsen works, materiality is on focus. The traditional use of materials is been shifted into something new. In Interesting Poetry, Vol. 1 (III) an old fur takes the shapes of letters put together in unknown words and therefore disturbing the overall understanding of what the viewer sees. Are we perhaps facing a magic language? What are the references in what we see? Everything is very obscure and mysterious.
This contrasting and simultaneously comparative ensemble of works make the exhibition ‘A Gift to the Dark’ a real experience towards the inner self and the understanding of that thin line standing between the concepts of ‘familiar’ and ‘unknown’, in constant contamination. Furthermore, the unstoppable swinging across bigger and smaller sized paintings, as well as the diverse techniques, methods and materials used by the different artists drive the viewer into a deep exploration and the discovery of incredible details. Those details which trigger the mind and challenge the perception of feelings and emotions.
Exhibiting artists: Beatrice Alici, Paulina Emilia Aumayr, Sarah Fripon, Alex Macedo, Esther Martens, India Nielsen, King Rhomberg, Georgia-May Travers Cook. Curated by: Sayori Radda