‘The Re-Turn’, Chrysanne Stathacos’s first New York solo show in five years, is a fitting homecoming to an underrecognized former figure of the downtown scene. Displayed in Anonymous’s meditative subterranean gallery, the artist’s paintings and prints speak to a cerebral, Buddhist-inflected enlightenment about the coexistence of past, present and future and to the profundity of loss experienced by Stathacos and her community during the AIDS crisis in the 1990s. ‘The Re-Turn’ reminds us that, though widely derided at the time, Stathacos’s ethos of care and community-building was trailblazing.
Curators K.O. Nnamdie and Joseph Henrikson's curation first directs us to three paintings discovered earlier this year in Stathacos’s Brooklyn storage unit and shown here for the first time. Rose Hair (1992), Stathacos tells me, is the ‘mother’ of the trio. To make it, she gathered roses and strands of her hair, laid them on a linen canvas, painted them in oil, folded the canvas in half, then pulled it through a press. This physically strenuous process – what she calls ‘performative painting’ – is essential to her ritual-driven practice. The subsequent stage of unfolding the canvas is an exercise in trust and letting go, a nod to the Tibetan Buddhist teachings palpable throughout her work. The finished piece evokes an organism: rose petals shoot off from stems around which tendrils of Stathacos’s hair are tethered like tentacles. Resembling a torso, it suggests the impressions bodies and spirits alike leave behind.
Throughout history, women’s hair – a key medium of Stathacos’s practice – has frequently been expected to be covered up in public. In 1990, as a challenge to that convention, Stathacos created a fictional alter ego, Anne de Cybelle – a 19th century French artist who yearned to be part of the academy, created hair dresses with her own locks and scraps of linen, and eventually tapped into her power as an oracle. De Cybelle – and Stathacos – understood time as three-dimensional, rendering material success unimportant in the grand unfolding of the universe. Indeed, Stathacos tells me, Rose Hair and her adjacent ‘daughters’, Rose Tree and Rose Blood Tree (both 1992), were painted at the peak of the AIDS epidemic, when Stathacos was grieving close artist friends, Jorge Zontal and Felix Partz of General Idea and Robert Flack, and consciously constructed portraits in homage to those lost to disease or history.
So, while ‘The Re-Turn’ revisits Stathacos’s oeuvre-defining motifs of roses and hair as conduits between the material world and the spiritual realm, it’s also about the celebration of homecoming, lineage and the beauty of impermanence. Rose Scroll (2015–22), a repurposed rose-printed linen scroll from the mid-20th century, pays homage to Stathacos’s great aunt, a seamstress in Greece. The metal roses that surround the scroll were given to Stathacos by her sister, who found them at a roadside flea market in Maine, while those scattered on the linen are fresh, purchased at a flower market on the Upper West Side. Over the course of the exhibition, they will gradually decay, a process which references Stathacos’s Buddhist belief in samsara, or the endless cycle of rebirth and death.
Rose Scroll also acts as a literal pathway to the final element of the exhibition, Rose Wall (1995–2022), which comprises printed roses and hair on canvas, with nine framed rose petal prints on cotton rag paper sourced from Victorian erotica. The prints – so small that they need to be viewed through a looking glass – demand the kind of close attention that facilitates moving into a deeper state of consciousness. Stathacos inspires us, in this liminal space between reality and enlightenment, to consider new ways of finding peace and closure to grief, and to perform acts of care and compassion both to ourselves and to others.
Chrysanne Stathacos, ‘The Re-Turn’ is on view at anonymous gallery, New York, until 10 June.
Main image: Chrysanne Stathacos, Rose Wall, 1995-2022, printed roses and hair on canvas, 3 × 7.6 m. Courtesy: the artist