A Tonic to the Hyper-Anxious State of Human Existence

Review / March 2023
A Tonic to the Hyper-Anxious State of Human Existence: Larissa De Jesús Negrón at Guts Gallery
By Lydia Wilford

Currently showing at Guts Gallery, Hackney, is the first UK solo exhibition of the Puerto Rico-born artist Larissa De Jesús Negrón. How does the mind survive, Distraída asks, in a world filled with distraction?

The painting God Opens Doors (2023) is disorientating, metaphysical, and inviting. A series of doorways lead downwards into an unknown, anonymous space; a large hand descends from the top left corner. Two fingers hover, about to close the opening before us as if to say “Will you descend or not?” The work is immediately reminiscent of Dorothea Tanning’s self-portrait Birthday (1942), where the artist depicts herself poised to venture into a mise-en-abyme of open doors, hand out-stretched. Larissa De Jesús Negrón’s show extends a similar invitation: to embark on a subconscious journey.

In his text The Last Snapshot Of The European Intelligentsia (1928), Walter Benjamin locates revolutionary energies in the everyday. While depicting the heroism of the mundane, he writes, the paintings of the surrealist movement colluded the magical with the real. Viewing works such as Flooded by Thoughts of The Present (2023), these remarks remain pertinent. The work throws us into the swell of rolling waves. Here, the remnants of De Jesús Negrón’s artistic life sit on a protruding ledge; dollar bills, flecks of vermillion and cadmium paint, and an extensive receipt from New York art materials shop BLICK. A phrenology bust resting benignly beside a hammer indicates that the landscape is a map of the artist’s mind, littered with detritus of the everyday. As uncanny relics from the material world situated in a fantastical landscape, these fragments serve as our mundane guides.

Scale is a predominant feature of Distraída. Throughout the exhibition space, large canvases are shown alongside their diminutive counterparts; an analogy for the elaborate disjunction between miniature and gigantic within the works themselves. Negrón favours the Bataillean motif of an omniscient eye, observing her consciousness and its anxieties in works such as Obsessed with Everything (2023) and I Want To See Crystal Clear (2023). In Bataille’s Story of the Eye, the primacy of sight and reason is challenged via regular defamation of the ocular. In Obsessed with Everything, Negrón heightens the eye to a grotesque scale, as if to champion the anxieties it gazes upon. Susan Stewart writes on the impact the miniaturisation of form has on human experience: “Linked to the nostalgic versions of childhood and history [the miniature] presents a diminutive and thereby manipulable version of experience…”. By rendering her troubles in microscopic detail, the artist can enact a measure of control over her thoughts.

The interior space of Obsessed With Everything feels specifically female. A troubled woman in the right-hand corner gazes upon the Freudian image of a large snake on the verge of devouring a peeled banana. Adjacent, the floating sketch of a man’s face looks hungrily at a naked foot, accompanied by a scraffito sketch of a woman’s breasts and the text “Who am I without my identity?’. These elements convincingly visualise the anxieties of modern womanhood as they float, coalesce, and threaten one’s everyday existence. Yet, Negrón aims to remind her viewer that while these distractions are present, they do not dominate. Carefully articulated in Soy Libre Mama (2023) are small black hairs surrounding a nipple, spelling out the phrase “Soy Libre” (I am free).

Negrón’s works are equal parts hypnotic and eerie. The self-described “neo-surreal” style used by the artist recalls the hyper-realism employed by Spanish Surrealist Salvador Dali, an artist collected by Negrón’s father and a pioneer of verisimilitude. While referencing an art-historical stylistic precedent, the works also employ airbrushing — as in Distraída (2023) — a medium which lends the painted surface a soft, oneiric quality. Certain details in Negrón’s work recall Dali’s obsession with confronting the viewer with unnerving, physically uncomfortable imagery.  A famous shot from Un Chien Andalous (1924) shows a cloud crossing a full moon, only to immediately “jump-cut” to an image of an eyeball being slit horizontally. Parallels to this haptic device are found in Negrón’s placement of a spoon directly on an open eyeball, close-ups of acne-marked skin and a fly crawling up a woman’s cheek. Crucially, at no point does Negrón’s work feel derivative of a previous movement, but rather an exciting exploration into the potential of absurdist realism.

The natural world is a constant feature of Distraída, appearing in the hues and gradients of each work. A palette of blue and green demarcates the otherworldly nature of Negrón’s universe. Walking through the exhibit, the artist’s “re-tethering” with nature is achieved through a notable decentring of the anthropomorphic. The natural world appears as a tonic to the hyper-anxious state of human existence, as exemplified in the work I Want To Be The River But I’m The Rock (2023). As the artist relinquishes all need to be present in human form, she allows herself to be washed away by the current. This show is crafted with care, a testament to a poetically distracted mind.

Image Credits:

Image 1: Installation View, Distraída; Courtesy of Aggie Cherrie at Eva Herzog Photography and Guts Gallery

Image 2: Flooded by Thoughts of The Present (2023); Courtesy of Aggie Cherrie at Eva Herzog Photography and Guts Gallery

Image 3: Installation View, Distraída; Courtesy of Aggie Cherrie at Eva Herzog Photography and Guts Gallery

Image 4: I Want To Be The River But I’m The Rock (2023); Courtesy of Aggie Cherrie at Eva Herzog Photography and Guts Gallery