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Jesus Spells

Since the turn of the century, Megan Hansen-Knarhoi has been making artworks that do a whole lot of things at once. Some of those things coincide, inevitably, with wider patterns and tendencies in contemporary art. Others are more personal, less fashionable.

While Hansen-Knarhoi addresses what are loosely termed “social issues” – or the way individuals are moulded by social systems – she tackles a particular set of issues, and a facet of “identity”, rarely broached in contemporary art. Few artists (the American, Andres Serrano, is one of them) mess so profoundly and so playfully with the sacred and the profane. The profanity, less pronounced in her current work, Jesus Spells, than in previous works, brings to mind contemporary British artists like Tracy Emin and Sara Lucas, who are similarly vulgar, nutty, blunt, erotic and confessional. Hansen-Knarhoi, however, once more evades the particular style – that which was described by British theorists Dave Beech and John Roberts as “philistinism”, a kind of neo-Duchampian ersatz dumbness. She is considerably involved with a contrary, more formal or aesthetic endeavour, inviting comparison between her cascading skeins of wool on wall and floor, with the flowing rivulets of acrylic paint on the canvases of an abstract painter such as Morris Louis. Indeed, Jesus Spells is inherently pictorial - more like a painting than a sculpture – though it consists of wool and nails.

The woolliness and the sharpness pertain to both form and meaning. A fluffy façade belies both the formal rigour of the work and its pointed social satire. Moreover, in connecting the “aesthetic” and the “social” – and thereby proving the spuriousness of the distinction between these facets of contemporary art – Hansen-Knarhoi exploits both the vagueness and the pin-point precision of language. Language – the artwork as text, as generator of multiple readings – underpins much contemporary art and art-writing. Many contemporary artworks happen also to include words. Hansen-Knarhoi’s title, Jesus Spells, alludes to the formation of words, while the image includes what appears to be a giant speech bubble – a suggestion that words are resonating from Jesus’s mouth – though we see only crosses. Perhaps what is affirmed here is not just the oft-referred to phenomenon of multiple connotation and interpretations, but of multiple languages. A language is something shared by a group of people, an interpretive community bound by a set of agreed values and beliefs, but not necessarily by all people. As Michel Foucault famously demonstrated, “discourse”, or a shared vocabulary, is the means by which a social group or phenomenon is formed – it does not exist without the words to distinguish it.

On the other hand, some might contend that the power of language is insignificant in the face of the presence of God and faith, which are beyond mere linguistic explanation or rationalisation. Jesus Spells alludes to “magic” – the apprehension of something intangible. Of course, the experience of art too requires a certain leap of faith. One cannot provide reasons for the value one attributes to art, or for preferences and judgements, nor explain and identify all dimensions of the complex experience offered by an artwork such as Jesus Spells. In other words, the experience of art transcends language.

Dr. Edward Hanfling from the exhibition catalogue Jesus Spells, The Suter Te Aratoi o Whakatu , 5 March - 17 April 2011

Jesus Spells
The Suter Te Aratoi o Whakatu
208 Bridge Street, Nelson
5 March - 17 April 2011

Jesus Spells
The Suter Te Aratoi o Whakatu
208 Bridge Street, Nelson
5 March - 17 April 2011

Jesus Spells
The Suter Te Aratoi o Whakatu
208 Bridge Street, Nelson
5 March - 17 April 2011

Jesus Spells
(detail - forehead)
The Suter Te Aratoi o Whakatu
208 Bridge Street, Nelson
5 March - 17 April 2011

Jesus Spells
(detail - eye)
The Suter Te Aratoi o Whakatu
208 Bridge Street, Nelson
5 March - 17 April 2011

Jesus Spells
(detail - mouth)
The Suter Te Aratoi o Whakatu
208 Bridge Street, Nelson
5 March - 17 April 2011

Jesus Spells
(detail - speech bubble)
The Suter Te Aratoi o Whakatu
208 Bridge Street, Nelson
5 March - 17 April 2011

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