Walter Martin & Paloma Muñoz. American Gothic

3.30.2020 | By Tina Teufel, Curator

"Once we as viewers identify what we have witnessed as an immediate danger to ourselves we are able to suppress any mobilization of our life-saving defense mechanisms and can indulge in laughter with some measure of relief."

Due to the current situation, the publication of the catalogue for the exhibition A Mind of Winter. Walter Martin & Paloma Muñoz is unfortunately delayed. In order to shorten the waiting time, in this blog post we share an excerpt of the catalogue text by curator Tina Teufel.

Enchanting snowscapes, romantic landscapes submerged in twilight, and classic US-American suburban homes—these are the locations chosen by the artists Walter Martin and Paloma Muñoz as stage sets for their sculptural and photographic works. The associations with kitsch awaken in the viewer quite contradictory expectations. The settings are unspecifically provincial, no longer bound by clichés of lethargy, tranquility, and harmlessness, where inhabitants find themselves exposed to nature and its accompanying forces. Not infrequently, it is precisely the provincial, in literary and cinematic works, that is the site of miracles where the absurd, the unimaginable, the inexpressible occur, where liminal interpersonal events transpiring between the idyllic and the dark and shadowy take place. (1)

Martin and Muñoz add a generous dose of black humor (2) to their narratives. There is both laconic self-reflection and a certain interchangeability in the figures and places being depicted.


Winter Games

The snow globe as a diorama en miniature also functions as an object that offers the viewer the opportunity of approaching their own forbidden thoughts in a playful manner, processing them by means of identification, while at the same time  enabling a voyeuristic distancing. Play permits us not only to test boundaries and live out our fantasies, but, according to Johan Huizinga, it is through play that humans are also able to develop cultural aptitudes and become acquainted with the social boundaries of their respective cultures. (21)

“The arena, the gaming table, the magic circle, the temple, the stage, the film screen, the law court, are all, in their form and function, playgrounds, that is, sacrosanct sites, segregated, ring-fenced, sanctified areas, with specific rules of their own.They are temporary worlds within the everyday one that serve in accomplishing hermetic actions.”(22)

Consequently, the snow globe in the work of Martin and Muñoz is not only endowed with the character of a stage, but of a game or temporary world within our quotidian one, in which the artists are able to act freely and yet maintain a certain order. They playfully employ the fragmentary nature of the scenes as symbols of insecurity while leaving the viewer with the unsettling certainty that nothing endures. Martin and Muñoz’s figures change attire and appearance, for example by wearing animal carcasses like clothes—skins as they are likewise used in modern computer games. Yet, they are no more “monstrous” than the trees that can suddenly grow feet and walk. Their narratives are sometimes so outlandish that they are in turn perceived as “normal,” since we are already familiar with such hybrid beings from the collective treasure trove of figures that have emerged since the Middle Ages, in works by Hieronymus Bosch, René Magritte, fantastic realism – or in recent art history in works by Deborah Sengl and many others.


Black Humor

Martin and Muñoz mostly photograph their snow globes and dioramas as night scenes. Their titles include the addendum “at night”, insinuating that execrable things may occur especially at night, and that darkness may also reflect the negative side of the psyche. Nevertheless, the nocturnal scenes within their oeuvre are not necessarily any more cruel or “darker” in terms of content and form than those set in daylight. The works from the series Cold Front and Islands, as well as Adrift, whose scenes frequently signify a state of transition for their protagonists, are bathed in twilight. Such crepuscular lighting was a distinctive feature in the landscape paintings of the Hudson River School of Painting, whose members were mainly active in the mid-19th century, a stylistic means—influenced by the paintings of Romanticism and the Barbizon School—of presenting partly realistic, partly idealized landscapes, in which humans and nature coexist in harmony. As in contemporaneous literature, they combine aspects of both naturalism and the Gothic. (24) Similar works were being created, during the same period, within German Romanticism, which also finds a certain resonance in Martin and Muñoz’s series Adrift. Only on closer examination does the tragedy underlying such scenes located in romantic landscapes become apparent. “Gothicism and naturalism are both devoted to shaking bourgeois complacency, revealing unsettling truths that society tries to conceal from itself.” (25)

The glass of the snow globe functions in a similar manner to a mirror, which is considered a gateway to the soul in many cultures. The snow globe becomes a mystical crystal ball, enabling viewers a glimpse into a parallel world. (26) The mirror we (are obliged to) hold up, or that is held up for us by others, frequently confronts us with aspects of our selves that we would prefer not to reveal. Like Cassandra Morgeson in Elizabeth Stoddard’s The Morgesons (1861), we must find our own way of addressing ghosts of the past, exorcising them, and overcoming various forms of being possessed. The use of the stylistic means of the Gothic makes it easier for us to carry out such an endeavor (27), similarly to the manner the sometimes pitch-black humor functions in the works of Martin and Muñoz:

“The tension between feeling and repelling fear that accumulates in the recipient of black humor, which finds release in laughter as soon as feelings of relief emerge at not being seriously affected, is as it were revoked. […] Feelings of fear are never completely relinquished when laughing at black humor; in the most extreme cases – depending on the individual’s degree of dismay about its cause – transforming into paralysis in the face of horror.”(28)

Once we as viewers identify what we have witnessed as an immediate danger to ourselves we are able to suppress any mobilization of our life-saving defense mechanisms and can indulge in laughter with some measure of relief. (29)

(1) There are numerous examples in European and US-American cultural history, in such novels as Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The House of the Seven Gables (1851), Ira Levin’s The Stepford Wives (1972), José Saramago’s Blindness (Ensaio sobre a cegueira, 1995), Joyce Carol Oates’ American Gothic Tales (1996), numerous works by H.P. Lovecraft and Stephen King, but also films such as Fargo by the Coen brothers (1996), as well as TV series like David Lynch and Mark Frost’s Twin Peaks (1990/91), and the Netflix series Stranger Things (beginning in 2016). The term “Kafkaesque” deriving from the work of Franz Kafka has become a synonym for the disorientating and menacing.

(2) For the phenomenology, definition, and reception of black humor cf. for example Schwarzer Humor. Arbeitstexte für den Unterricht, Peter Nusser ed., Stuttgart: Philipp Reclam jun., 1987: pp. 6–16 / definitions of the term “black humor”: pp. 119–121; Michael Hellenthal, Schwarzer Humor. Theorie und Definition, Essen: Verlag Die Blaue Eule, 1989 (Literaturwissenschaft in der Blauen Eule, vol. 1).
For the history of the term black humor see for example André Breton, Anthologie de l‘humoir noir, Paris: Èd. du Sagittaire, 1940; … und treiben mit Entsetzen Scherz. Die Welt des schwarzen Humors, Reinhard Federmann ed., Tübingen: Erdmann Verlag, 1969; Hellenthal, Schwarzer Humor, Essen 1989, see above all pages 19–23.
For the relationship between terror and laughter see also: Christian W. Schneider, Framing Fear: The Gothic Mode in Graphic Literature, Trier: WVT Wissenschaftlicher Verlag Trier, 2014 (ELCH, vol. 57): pp. 47–48.

(21) Cf. Johan Huizinga, Homo ludens. Vom Ursprung der Kultur im Spiel, Andreas Flitner ed., Reinbek, 2009.

(22) Huizinga, “Formale Kennzeichen des Spiels,” in: Nusser, Schwarzer Humor, 1987: p. 111.

(24) The US author Frank Norris is worth mentioning in particular; his novels dedicated to naturalism, such as McTeague (1899) and The Octopus (1901), were frequently very painterly in their descriptions of nature.

(25) Crow, History of the Gothic. American Gothic, 2009: p. 102.

(26) For example, in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass (1871), the sequel to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Alice is able to enter a parallel world through a mirror.

(27) Cf. Stephen Arch, “Seeing Gothically. Elizabeth Stoddard’s The Morgesons,” in: Haunting Realities,2017: pp. 29–30.

(28) Nusser, “Einleitung: Zur Phänomenologie des Schwarzen Humors,” in: Schwarzer Humor, 1987: p. 13.

(29) Ibid. p. 11.

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