Constance Tenvik: Finding Shelter Under a Giant’s Tongue

Nov 16, 2023 - Jan 6, 2024

30 Orchard St, Gallery 1




Harkawik is pleased to announce Finding Shelter Under a Giant's Tongue, our solo exhibition with Norwegian artist Constance Tenvik. In nine new paintings, created while in residence in Brooklyn, Tenvik reimagines contemporary New York via the lens of the celebrated sixteenth century heretical satire, Gargantua and Pantagruel. Much like Rabelais' text, in which narrative constructs are merely an opportunity to perform elaborate linguistic feats, Tenvik's cornucopia of sumptuous and provocative imagery, gorgeous cacophony and escalating oneupmanship of patterned textiles, and fever pitch palette exist in the service of a unique social experiment that is tested by a means of concretizing and exploding gestural action and a superimposition of impossible perspectives on flat and infinitely extensible dimensional planes. Tenvik asks us to consider how the quandaries of ordinary life and pertinent questions of the day might be enriched and problematized via an overlay of historical approaches to humor and cathartic release, to gender roles, to national identity and sovereignty, to indulgence, to toil and servitude, on hyper-contemporary and evolving concerns. Her paintings are filled with players from her social sphere, who stroll casually into scenes of decadent repose, gay and spirited sportsmanship, and vicious, indifferent mayhem, taking up comfortable residence in history, and reminding us that the ancient truths about life may be as immediately available to us as we are willing to seek them out.

For the past few years, Tenvik has drawn on the social worlds of her adopted homes, inviting friends into her studio to sit for portraits, taking cues from their energy in unexpected and improvisational ways, and recontextualizing their public identity in the mode of historical discourse. Her paintings are unfailingly flat and vibrant, and she makes extensive use of the kind of visual tension that arises incidentally from textural happenstance (imagine a paisley scarf draped over a herringbone duvet). Each of the works in Finding Shelter envisions an encounter based in Tenvik's source material, suggesting a meditation on the ways in which our contemporary landscape has become decidedly Rabelaisian. In How Gargantua Ate Six Travellers in a Salad, a merry band takes up temporary residence in an oral cavern, becoming food by virtue of scale, just as mushroom, drumstick and tomato verge on the anthropomorphic. Despite its beastly implications, the scene is oddly still. A dandy with a sweater a little too good to be true clings to a massive tooth for dear life, though his face fails to register alarm; a hairy palm tree emerges in the distance, like a piece of spinach that the tongue can't quite wriggle free. Hair is the star of Collective Gaiety. Here a congregation of revelers find their bodies perfectly suited to occupy the negative space of their neighbor, and show off their brush-bristle locks, shocks, bobs and Matisse-like body hair, which tend to protrude like a shrub, suggesting a kind of equivalency between the growth of the scene's scant foliage and the emergence of the "collective."

In the cherry red Madame Gargantua (a work inspired by Honoré Daumier's 1866 etching of the same title, in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art) a central globe-like platter acts as a unifying device, concealing a congregation of joints and limbs that a severe case of scoliosis would only partly explain. Here Tenvik's propensity to confound the eye is on full display; one platter, loaded with fish, vanishes as we would expect, while another is viewed simultaneously from the side and above, offering a map of plebeian sprawl. Madame's right shoulder kicks back arbitrarily to accommodate a tiny ladder; the painting's formal conceit recalls a children's story that has been traced to the French Revolution, in which a boy wonders what a girl would look like without a favorite ribbon tied around her neck, only to find that once removed, her head falls off. Arriving in Paris... is a work that needs little explanation; note the similarity between the gian't pubic hair, broccoli-like fingers, and the arched crescent waves, each acting as a container for the legs of a single upturned figure. We see, again, figures who occupy dimensional space, and those who are flattened out like the border of an Hermes scarf. Even the houses in the background seem to ripple and shift to make way for a wave of urine hundreds of yards away.

How Pantagruel Put to Sea to Visit the Oracle of the Holy Bacbuc is a marvel of spatial humor. A single vessel resembling an upturned felt hat pitches violently upward, emerging from an ocean textured with sponges that might be used to decorate a child's suburban bedroom wall. Its cresting waves recall rudimentary illustrations of the sea; a single airborne dolphin, back arched, looks as likely to dip back in as to glance off its surface with a dull thud (three cannonballs behind it seem to be doing just that). Inspired by a pirate-themed party held at her studio and the costumes of Fassbinder's Querelle, Tenvik's brilliance here is the compression and negotiation of the scene's action to a narrow band at the center of the painting. Upon closer inspection, we notice, among other things, the ship's captain puffing on a cumulonimbus pipe and steering with a wheel that's attached to nothing at all. Disparate threads emerge and reconvene in Bread of Dreams, the exhibition's largest work. Here we see Tenvik abandon the framing devices used so effectively elsewhere—instead, the entire painting functions like the platter of Madame Gargantua, offering a mostly-aerial view of a social conflagration; a thief, a shephard, a drunk join fornicators, dancers, and the painting's lone pair of devious bakers concede their terrain, besotted with gluten, and blissfully at rest in the historical realm of the immediate present that is Tenvik's wont and her province.