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Dancers Around An Effigy To Modernism

183 x 244.3 cm. (72 x 96 in.)
Kraupa-Tuskany Zeidler Gallery, Berlin, Germany
Acquired from the above by the present owner in 2013
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Jacky Ho (何善衡)


An immersive tableau almost 2.5 metres across, Dancers Around an Effigy to Modernism (2013) exemplifies the unique approach of Avery Singer, who collides art-historical references in compelling, playful and gently comedic scenes. Executed in grisaille—a monochrome technique traditionally used for trompe-l’oeil portrayals of sculptural relief—the work depicts a group of high-heeled dancers cavorting round the robot-like Modernist bronze Skulptur 23 (1923) by Rudolf Belling. One figure shines a torch at the sculpture, as if placing it under interrogation. To the left is an artwork by contemporary sculptor Rachel Harrison, featuring an amorphous shape resting on a found stepladder. In the foreground is an image from performance artist Chris Burden’s infamous 1974 work Velvet Water , in which Burden repeatedly plunged his head in a basin and attempted to breathe underwater. Singer’s overall scenario itself looks something like a piece of performance art: a seated figure observes from a raised platform in the background, and the action is lit from what seem to be high studio windows, raking the scene with dramatic shadows that emphasise its staged layers of illusion, artifice and multiple realities.

Typical of the style that first brought Singer to acclaim, the composition for Dancers Around an Effigy to Modernism was made in the computer programme SketchUp, widely used for 3D modelling by architects and interior designers. Singer then projected this digital scene onto canvas and painted, with crisp precision, using an airbrush and masking tape. While the resulting pristine finish seems to elide any trace of the artist’s hand, Singer’s work has an intriguing life that is distinctively hers. Through its traversing of realms—from three-dimensional reality to virtual, digital space and thence to the flat painted surface—it takes on a richness of overlaid perspectives that complements Singer’s critical eye on art history. The present painting’s festive dancers poke fun at the collective reverence of historical avant-gardes, with Belling’s sculpture at the centre like a fallen object of worship; rather than perched on a pedestal, it is in an open box on the floor, as if newly unpacked. With the inclusion of Rachel Harrison’s surreal ladder assemblage, Singer invokes an artist who shares her self-conscious interest in the structures and conventions of art’s display. Chris Burden’s performances, meanwhile, tested the limits of art, morality and power, challenging audiences and often putting the artist in extreme danger. Conjuring these different ideas and eras into the same grey mise-en-scène, Singer brings the viewer into a space which—like sculpture—invites examination from multiple angles.

Born in New York in 1987, Singer was surrounded by art from a young age. Her parents were both artists—they named her after Milton Avery, the visionary American landscape painter—and her father worked as a projectionist at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, where he would take her for early-morning tours before visiting hours. (It was likely here that she first saw Belling’s Skulptur 23 , a version of which is in the museum’s collection.) She went on to study sculpture at Cooper Union, while also pursuing her interests in video art and computer modelling, before bringing together these disciplines in her grisaille paintings. As Kasia Redzisz has written, ‘Singer’s work is underpinned by subtle contradictions … Her 3D models serve as sketches for 2D art works and for still lifes that seem to be in constant motion. Singer assembles a hybrid of past, present and future, which she then translates into paintings, approached as sculptures staged for performances frozen in time’ (K. Redzisz, ‘In Focus: Avery Singer’, Frieze 164, 30 May 2014). In Dancers Around an Effigy of Modernism , Singer explores such temporal and technical paradoxes with a sharp wit that lightens the learnedness of her critique: she is fond of humourists such as Mel Brooks and Woody Allen, whose work has its own distinctly New York flavour. At the same time, with her ingenious, multidisciplinary mode of image-making, Singer proposes a serious new place for painting in a post-digital world.

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