Maybe because imitation always seems somewhat uncanny, there’s something deeply disturbing about realism, particularly when the aura of invention emphasizes the gap between the real and its facsimile, as in the case of Jeanne Silverthorne’s work. She deploys a level of skill that appears significant not so much because it results in something recognizable but because it’s excessive and surprising. As profound as Silverthorne’s virtuosity is, it’s a screen—a magician’s sleight of hand. She elides just enough detail for us to sense that the realism masks the metaphysical. Despite the accuracy of her rubber objects, the obsessive, detailed rendering creates something intimate with reality, and yet richly, fabulously artificial.
When we talked about her show “And the Unfathomable Night of Dreams Began” (on view through December 20, 2023), “realism” wasn’t on Silverthorne’s mind; instead, she discussed how she invents nothing but aims for metaphor, associative thinking, analogies: “I’m really too literal to get too far beyond something that’s seen, touched, experienced through the body.” She’s a phenomenologist, concerned with the structures of consciousness, perception, and awareness of the body. An unrepentant realist surrounded by the art world’s insistence on abstraction, her work’s narrative power is more important than its verismo.
This small, intimate show, featuring 11 cast, monochromatic rubber objects ranging in height from 10 to 75 inches, is conceptually divided between works that are simultaneously realistic and abstract and those that are completely figurative and, in a wizardly way, uncannily lifelike. The more conceptual work is derived from what Silverthorne calls an “archaeology of studio life, a kind of excavation.” These works reflect her daily life in the studio, a place so familiar it’s become like a second skin. Based on the form of a crate and representing the artist’s constant need for storage, these closed rubber containers act as both storage and pedestal. Their surfaces photo-realistically replicate the loops and whorls of plywood surfaces. Cast black sneakers frequently accompanying these crates—duplicates of the ones that Silverthorne constantly wears. In the broadest abstract sense, these are markers of her presence. The most philosophical of these crate-works (Hanging Question Mark, 2020) poses a black question mark, suspended from a rubber rope, above the crate.
Silverthorne’s small figurative objects live entirely in the world of metaphor and interpretation—you inevitably create stories for the little figure of Silverthorne’s mom standing on a book; the tiny, white-capped gray baby nestled on a creamy baroque cloud; the nine-inch-tall, multi-wheeled dolly bearing a teensy black fly. These works are so straightforward in their presentation that they create an atmosphere as dramatic as it is absurd. One of the show’s largest pieces is a full-length self-portrait in buff-colored titanium rubber—Silverthorne’s doppelgänger sprawled on the floor, wearing sneakers, synthetic hair, and black eyeglasses.
One of the oddest passages in literature can be found in Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, in the dramatic scene of Anna’s suicide. In it, Tolstoy focuses on her red handbag, the last item she sheds as she jumps in front of the train. Silverthorne works in the same arena of misdirection—the realism of her work stands in for something else; its embodied narrative points away from its appearance to something more basic, profound, and existential—creativity, fragility, aging, absurdity, humanity.