Etkin, Suzan

Suzan Etkin - Paul Kasmin Gallery, New York, New York
ArtForum,  Dec, 1993  by K. Marriott Jones

Suzan Etkin's work seems divided against itself: though her concerns merit a certain clarity, enigma is pursued with such anxiety that in the end it is somewhat starved of meaning. Etkin has said that she hopes to achieve "a continuing provocation, an ongoing question," in her work, citing Marcel Duchamp as a fundamental influence.

Of the five pieces in this show, the most compelling was Fourth Position (all works 1993), a steel spiral staircase that revolved smoothly backward to a dull hum, evoking the silent descent of an invisible nude. This ghostly presence was echoed by what seemed to be pieces of a body--or of a shattered statue--that were arranged like archaeological finds on round, gray-swathed tables placed in the same room. Entitled Suitor's Reflection, these remnants were fragile, drained, asexual. The "suitor"--the male instead of the female--has been trapped, fragmented, put on display, while the woman retreats into invisibility. Rather than a provocative inversion of the Duchampian sexual paradigm, these works form an inadequate response to its particular imbalance of sexual power. Most peculiar is that both are sexually neutral, with no implied onanism, no endlessly postponed sexual union--just a mutilated bachelor and a catatonic bride.
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In the back room a crude trio was formed of three works: a backlit red-velvet theatrical curtain; a smoked mirror against which sagged three figures made from copper mesh; and a tiered shelf on which were arrayed 30 hand-blown flacons holding perfume blended by the artist. The last, entitled Eau de Corps (Water of the body), was the most intriguing of these three works. The bottles are like caricatures of female bodies, each stopper forming a woman's upper torso with glass arms flung out in boneless hysteria. If, as seems likely, Etkin is alluding to Duchamp's assisted readymade Belle Haleine, Eau de Voilette (Beautiful breath, veil water, 1921), her gesture is leaden, devoid of the complex irony of the crossdressing original, merely reiterating a gross stereotype: the bottle as prototypically female, the woman as fragile object. Although Etkin may be attempting to create poetic objects about the social condition of women, her chilly lack of engagement leaves the viewer wondering exactly what her position might be. Eau de Corps recalls certain works by Louise Bourgeois that have made startingly effective use of glass objects, including perfume bottles. But in Bourgeois' work, glass is as threatening as it is delicate. At the very least, Etkin lacks a similarly strong feeling for materials; in fact, one of the most astonishing aspects of her work is the degree to which she is able to wrest the seductive qualities from such touchable or sleek materials as glass, steel, and velvet.

Of all the pieces in the show, Fourth Position seemed the most clearly realized, although its commentary on Duchamp is painfully literal. Strangely enough, however, her supremely awkward allusions to this agile wit--and conceptual father-figure--render Etkin's work in a way oddly poignant, despite its blandness and its truncated conception. Perhaps, one speculates, these tenuous objects are intended to speak with the voice of a hypothetical woman, wounded at the hands of privileged gamesters like Duchamp. But in the end the work is too inchoate to be convincing, and one concludes that it suffers most from a fatal artiness that compulsively celebrates incoherence and incompletion.