Fort Tryon Park
Steinunn Thórarinsdóttir, a highly regarded Icelandic-born artist, is best known for her androgynous figures, which sidestep gender and sexual identity issues in favor of ambiguity. Her body of work leaves us questioning, without access to easy answers, perhaps with no answers at all.
At first glance, ARMORS (2016–18), her recent installation in a small meadow below The Met Cloisters, appeared to respond to that renowned collection of medieval art. Six cast aluminum, life-size figures, arranged in three pairs, presented a series of stark encounters. In each pairing, a figure in full armor, complete with closed helmet, engages a counterpart displaying the signature sexlessness of Thórarinsdóttir’s bodies. Because those who fought in such armor were men, we assume that these hidden figures are also male. But what of the others? In each case, the suit of armor faces off with a mysterious, androgynous figure. These comparatively vulnerable, exposed figures, confronting what might be opponents in full militarized garb, evince a disturbing fearlessness or selflessness. With their smooth groins, they might be male or female, but we don’t know, so we have to speculate as to the nature of the juxtaposition, which could be interpreted in myriad ways. Are these tableaux indicating contrasts between an earlier era dominated by the masculine and the more erotically open times in which we now live?
It is difficult to say what is happening, and viewers must leap to conclusions, for there are no facts to interpret these sculptures and their relations. We are forced to ask a very simple question about intention: What do the scenes mean? Thórarinsdóttir seems to be manufacturing symbolic set-ups with a nod to The Cloisters, but the implications are too hidden to be understood. This is a problem. As critic Arthur C. Danto indicated a couple of decades ago, symbolism is generally troubling as a fine art endeavor: in the absence of a shared culture in which everyone understands the implications of what they see, the symbolic object becomes too invested with private rather than public meaning. That leaves the key to understanding the work too much in the artist’s hands. In today’s fine art, particularly public art, which attempts to reach as many people as possible, symbolism is not a useful aesthetic strategy. In ARMORS, Thórarinsdóttir has not succeeded in establishing a visual language capable of communicating the personal insights she wants to share. The sculptures remained inert and opaque, overwhelmed by the scenery of the Hudson River landscape.