Rachel Klinghoffer: Aggressive Optimism at Morgan Lehman Gallery
by Samuel Anderson
Among the recent work of painter Rachel Klinghoffer, a portrait of the artist hides in plain sight. Charmed to meet you (2022) is a self-portrait in the metaphysical sense, depicting not a likeness so much as an essence – thereby embodying the artist’s free-form aesthetic philosophy. The composite sculpture is made up of repurposed objects spanning the domestic and spiritual realms: a conch shell, a horseshoe, an analog alarm clock…Suspended in an airy circle, they follow the color sequence of a rainbow. Arranged as such, the totems’ individual symbolism cedes to a kind of cosmic whole – a macrocosm of our shared quotidian reality.
In categorizing the piece as a self-portrait, Klinghoffer suggests a universal sympathy toward objects – those sacred and not. The all-over mix of color and category reflects our era of post-industrial abundance – an impression fortified by the chain-link component from which the items hang. In that context, a sense of personal ownership is an imaginative leap – one reenacted by the “charms” in Charmed…Nested within several are looseleaf remnants of parenthood like a sticker from her daughter’s first COVID shot or her son’s worn-through shoes. The difference between private and cultural significance generates another kind of “hidden” meaning: The various potential interpretations of time-honored symbols, like the red cardinal or the evil eye, almost cancel each other out. In cyclical fashion, an object’s meaning waxes and wanes.
In Klinghoffer’s able hands, color shifts our awareness away from the almighty signifier and toward something less defined. As viewers, we feel the shift more than we are conscious of it; the exact symbolism of the various parts is secondary to color in the aggregate. For me, the jewel-toned entanglements in Charmed recall an unlikely analog: Arthur Jafa’s “Big Wheels” series, massive monster-truck tires wrapped in chains, which writer Siddhartha Mitter calls “industrial chakras.” Chain imagery aside, both Jafa’s and Klinghoffer’s chakras take ’90s aesthetics to a ceremonial extreme – evoking a time when middle-class thirst for acquisition was consequence-free.
In the paintings of “Aggressive Optimism,” Klinghoffer’s recent show at Morgan Lehman Gallery, yawning cut-outs direct our gaze to the margins of the canvases. Upon closer examination, the remaining area brims with future offerings – fibers and shards that have yet to cohere. A contrast to the ornamental composure of the Charmed sculpture, the canvases’ holes look spontaneous and fresh, as though they’d recently birthed the nearby charms. As such, they become harbingers of productivity rather than loss.
The series was not the first time that Klinghoffer has found generative potential in painting’s material restrictions. She modeled her early output after the Hudson River School painters, who sought to channel the real world albeit in amped-up, idealized form. In hindsight, it was an ironic start to Klinghoffer’s practice: Whereas her later abstractions have a palpable intimacy, the mimetic exercise of landscaping implies a certain amount of distance.
Though her use of color was as wild and open as today, the formal limits of landscape painting would lead to an artistic reset: Taking a page from Lee Krasner, who is said to have sought inspiration thusly, Klinghoffer began cutting up her finished paintings – literally uprooting them from the physical unity of their original genre.
The use of landscapes for scrap marked a decisive shift away from empirical reality. Rather than a predetermined whole, Klinghoffer’s work thereon would reflect a composite of real and unseen forces – namely genealogies, inheritance, and the desire to connect. These concepts take on a physical dimension in Klinghoffer’s work: Borrowing from the assemblage techniques of the Pattern and Decoration movement, she incorporates found objects and object-fragments. But in contrast to P&D, which often reframed visual tropes from the American domestic tapestry such patterned textiles (see: Miriam Schapiro’s femmages), Klinghoffer’s work is free of patterns, instead hinging on one-of-a-kind-ness. “Button from grandmother’s sewing box,” one materials list might read, or “Receipt from local kosher butcher.” Each item has its own unique pedigree, sometimes going back generations. Each work of art is a collective, often multigenerational effort never to be repeated.
As stars are to a constellation, each of the objects has had a life of its own. Klinghoffer stockpiles these component parts in her New Jersey home studio, organizing them by person as opposed to category. By identifying the person from whom it originated, Klinghoffer underscores the individual and sentimental value of each non-art material, imagining a permeable border between it and the person or people it has touched.
While the objects don’t materialize out of the blue (or yellow or pink), they do come about by happenstance…Or, if you believe in metaphysical phenomena, via a kind of sympathetic magic. In Charmed, the real-life plant signifying “green” has a backstory in line with the latter category: Its previous owner was an artist friend of Klinghoffer’s who got it from an old boss – famed sculptor Robert Gober. Gober got it from the plant strain’s original owner, Lee Krasner – the abstract-expressionist forebear who indirectly facilitated Klinghoffer’s object-based practice in the first place.
Klinghoffer had known the transcendent power of craft, having instinctively held onto things like knitting that belonged to her grandmother. Still, the appropriation of family heirlooms into her artwork was not immediate, with Klinghoffer’s early assemblages sourced from craft and thrift stores as opposed to a bloodline. In doing so, Klinghoffer developed not only a new artistic vocabulary but a new perspective – a process artist Dario Robleto describes as a “re-enchantment; a romance with the world.”
If Klinghoffer’s painting once drew on the landscape of the surrounding world for inspiration, today it actually absorbs it. And as much as it samples from outside, the work also delves inward – both to the domestic interior of the home, and to an inner humanity inside all of us. The humble relics – glitter, tissue paper, and textiles – show up as textural incongruities, giving the sense that their contribution is not so much visual as conceptual or energetic. (Magical, perhaps.) In the era of mass production, salvaging a child’s gift wrapping – preserving the outer vestiges of familial love – feels, if not optimistic, like lavishing affection by proxy.
In a globalized world, where industry and standardization is our lifeblood, it can feel like nothing matters. But in practice and presentation, Klinghoffer’s work seems to imagine a world in which everything matters. If more of us saw material objects as spiritual conduits, or simply valued them intrinsically, we might start to feel the same. Whether that is a kind of optimism, or simply escapism, it could help us reimagine that industrial chakra…We all wear the chains, so they might as well glimmer.