Diana Shpungin: (Untitled) Portrait of Dad

by Will Brand on June 15, 2011 · 7 comments Reviews

Date: SUNDAY, MAY 22ND 2011 – SUNDAY, JULY 3RD 2011
Venue: Stephan Stoyanov Gallery29 Orchard Street
AFC’s Rating: 3.5/10 (Will Brand)

There’s nothing new to say about death. As the reigning Biggest Topic in the World since forever, artists and non-artists alike have pretty much exhausted what you can do with it. Diana Shpungin’s show (Untitled) Portrait of Dad, at Stephan Stoyanov Gallery, seems to admit this, repurposing existing tropes into a deeply personal exploration of grief.

The show title’s allusion to Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s candy-pile work Untitled (Portrait of Dad)(1991) is no accident. In the gallery’s basement, a one-ton pile of potatoes entitled 1,664 Sundays pays homage equally to Gonzalez-Torres and Shpungin’s father, the title reflecting the number of weeks that she and her father were both alive. The potatoes are free for the taking, preferably in one of the 500 paper bags Shpungin has printed with her father’s recipe for home fries. In a hand-drawn animation overlooking the distended pile, her father explains from a hospital bed how he purchased his first car (living in the Soviet bloc) by trading tons of potatoes on the black market. It’s a sensible reason to build a pile of potatoes, but one can’t help but think Shpungin’s missed the point, here: Gonzalez-Torres’s portrait is so fantastically powerful not because we take from a pile of food, but because we take from a pile with the same weight as his father. It’s the resulting Eucharist-like transformation, the equation of subject and work, that makes a five-cent candy feel like an incredible gift. In Shpungin’s work, the potatoes don’t symbolize anything other than, well, other potatoes; taking them from the work doesn’t feel any more moving than taking the bag to hold them in.

That said, there’s some merit here: the dramatic shadows offered by the potato-video juxtaposition is the most appealing visual in the show, and the gallery’s dingy, unfinished basement space is a fitting setting for clandestine potato-smuggling (another animation of Shpungin’s father plays next to an electricity meter). Preparing Shpungin’s potato recipe at home creates a sort of enforced meditation—you’re doing something boring, and there’s an obvious thing to think about as you do—though unfortunately, the significance of the meal is too specific to Shpungin to make you think about anything beyond the show itself.

That specificity is a problem that Shpungin creates and attempts to solve over and over again in the exhibition. For each work like 1,664 Sundays, there’s a work like A Fixed Space Reserved for the Haunting, a graphite-covered chair with one fractured leg, hovering above a pile of obituaries. Shpungin has blacked out all of the details—place, name, age, survivors—from the obituaries, turning the mantra-like repetition of her own coping method into something that generalizes death. Together with two works executed in silhouette, hanging nearby, it goes some way towards remedying the overly personal nature of the show. It doesn’t quite succeed, though. Ultimately, the objective here cannot be a truly universal expression of death, because that’s not how death works: death operates as a series of individual pricks, of specific reminders; obituaries have no power until someone dies in the same hospital as a friend. With Shpungin’s blacked-out pages, we lose too much. Death, it turns out, can be spread too thin.

What we’re left with, then, is a series of monuments to the artist’s grief, for despite her efforts to generalize it’s always hers alone. We can only watch, and take some small pleasure in the palpable sense of catharsis; thankfully, even when they fail, Shpungin’s works are powerful as records of her mourning. Shpungin hasn’t found anything new to say about death, but sometimes you just need to talk.


Charles Heyen June 15, 2011 at 3:46 pm


Lorna Mills June 15, 2011 at 4:20 pm

I have to disagree with your statement that the subject of death is exhausted.  Perhaps we grieve in a limited number of ways, but I don’t think we can exhaust all the mysteries and profundity of absence.

Will Brand June 15, 2011 at 5:15 pm

I don’t think it’s absolutely exhausted – people surprise me all the time – but why wouldn’t it be? Every human life of the past few millenia has resulted, ultimately, in somebody else giving a half-hour speech about death at their funeral. Is there really something they all missed? It’s an obvious and attractive topic, the basics of which haven’t ever changed – surely anyone who’s had something novel to say has had ample opportunity.

On the other hand, I did come across one of those FWD:FWD:FWD:FWD: e-mails the other day, all about how you want a physicist at your funeral to explain to people that the laws of thermodynamics mean you’re still around in a different form (I think part of my appeal is my physical coherence but hey). That’s a thought, I suppose, which we couldn’t have thought before 1850. So I’ll give you that. 

Kyle Chayka June 15, 2011 at 8:56 pm

 I enjoyed reading this review. Also, I enjoy home fries.

Anonymous June 17, 2011 at 1:31 am

there’s definitely nothing new to say about art reviews!

Jill Nabi June 22, 2011 at 5:53 am

Nice article!!! Loved the portrait too.


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