A walk on the exhibition floor of Genesis Belanger’s Through the Eye of a Needle at the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum feels like walking through a recently abandoned house. The dining table is set, the strawberries on the countertop have bites in them, and the contents of a recently upturned purse spill onto the couch. And while there are no people depicted to animate the still life, surrogates for the body lie everywhere: disembodied fingers and tongues creep out of vases of flowers, a humongous foot missing two toes rests in the pie dish, and a freshly manicured hand with no owner holds the phone, ready to make a call.
Working in porcelain and stoneware, Brooklyn-based artist Genesis Belanger (b. 1978) sought out to examine themes of grief and loss in her first solo-exhibition at the Aldrich, which was scheduled to open in May but was postponed until October due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Deriving its title from the New Testament proverb “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to get into heaven,” Belanger’s exhibition dives into an exploration of condolences. It interrogates the often insincere gestures our society uses to respond to grief: store-bought candy boxes, bouquets of flowers, apologetic phone calls, and comfort food. By imbuing realistic ceramic models of these objects with eerie psychological twists––an eyeball in the place of chocolate in a candy box, larger than life sized pills on the dinner table––Belanger’s objects engage in a witty critique of consumerism. “I aim for my objects to embody the dark and complex bits of our personalities, not just the parts we want to strut and flex,” says Genesis. Looking at her works is an unsettling experience, and perhaps this is because they feel too familiar to what we already know.
Belanger’s penchant for crafting the environments in which her objects exist stems from her background in the advertisement industry. After graduating from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and receiving her MFA from Hunter College, she went on to do set and prop design for ads. Elements from her time in this industry shine through in her exhibition, overlapping with the feminist agent operating in her work. Belanger’s work considers how women’s bodies have been fractured and manipulated by men, consumer culture, and advertisers. Take the recurring motif of the disembodied manicured hand: Belanger has said that a well-manicured female hand is used to advertise everything, regardless of what’s being sold. By satirically reconfiguring emblems of the female body as consumer objects, Belanger reclaims them in her work.
Almost all of Belanger’s sculptures are done in pastels: dusty roses, cornflower blues, and earthy neutral tones. Genesis uses a standing mixer to color her clay bodies, and the color treatment is applied through and through. In justifying her color palette, she references a desire for her works to emote nostalgia, a recurring theme in Through the Eye of a Needle. The theme first caught Belanger’s eye when she read about a psychological study in which nostalgia therapy was used to treat severe depression. Many of her objects, Belanger says, reference the ‘Mad Men era,’ employing the colors, motifs, and menus of the 60’s and 70’s. In A Fortress of Order and Generosity (2020), she depicts some of the classic “comfort food” dishes from this era––a roast ham, a gelatinous-looking meat dish, peas, pie, and deviled eggs. These dishes, which now appear to be far from comforting, critique the very culture of condolences they reference. Belanger notes that these foods come from the America to which Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” campaign refers. Belanger prompts us to consider: Are these traditions really so ‘great’? Is there any sincerity in them?
In the midst of the global trauma, loss, and grief of the past six months, Belanger’s exhibition has adopted a timely aura. Prior to the events of 2020, Genesis conceived Through the Eye of a Needle to handle smaller griefs: a breakup, the end of a friendship, or a transition in one’s life. She notes that had she known how 2020 would turn out to be, perhaps she would have chosen a different topic. All the same, her later works in the exhibition– such as You Never Know What You’re Gonna Get, a candy box full of Mr. Potatohead-like face parts– were made in quarantine and reflect these experiences. In response to You Never Know What You’re Gonna Get, Genesis notes that during the pandemic, when we’re all masked, so much that’s normally communicated by face gestures alone is lost. We’ve learned to operate using fractured facial expressions prescribed for cordiality and civility and comfort. Belanger’s candy box comments on the interchangeability of these expressions, the ways in which people are expected to go through the motions of condolences, regardless of sincerity.
Genesis Belanger’s exhibition is being shown at the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum in Ridgefield, CT until May of 2021, which is provisionally open to a limited number of visitors. While Belanger’s work draws influences from a variety of artistic movements, from feminist pop art (see Kiki Kogelnik and Evelyne Axell) to surrealism (see Magritte’s The Portrait), her style is uniquely her own. Pleasing and unsettling, attractive and repulsive, pulling us in and pushing us away, Belanger’s objects cleverly critique the consumerism of the world we live in.