Nataša Prosenc Stearns’ Caryatids

Nataša Prosenc Stearns’ Caryatids

Hearts with one purpose alone 

Through summer and winter seem   

Enchanted to a stone

To trouble the living stream

Yeats, “Easter 1916”

The darkness drops again; but now I know   

That twenty centuries of stony sleep

Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle

Yeats, “The Second Coming”

Nataša Prosenc Stearns’ video art is extraordinarily protean. Its subject matter is always movement and metamorphosis. But what also strikes us is a compression or tension that suggests a more static, even frozen element in which her figures are caught. 

One point of reference for this double effect is the painting Prosenc Stearns never quite leaves behind. Perspective and composition—design with its laws of radiation, repetition, and symmetry—ground her work not only in an art historical tradition but in something timeless, even universal. . .in the very notion of the universal itself as a product of that tradition in the antiquity to which she often alludes, for instance with her Caryatids series.


Figures of the Caryatid porch of the Erechtheion on the Acropolis at Athens, Greece (421BC-406BC). Adobe Stock photo / ukrolenotchka 

This double effect has me thinking of Yeats’ “stone” for a couple of reasons. First, its “troubling” of the “living stream” resembles, with the eddies and currents it produces, the scintillations which give Prosenc Stearns’ art its kinetic quality (and which often involve flowing water layered into her oneiric images). Second, Yeats’ implication that his “stone” figures something about the human heart when it becomes fixed on “one purpose alone”. . .or one truth understood as single, transcendent, ideal. . .illuminates the ambivalence that I think Prosenc Stearns is trying to observe, to get at, in her work. 

Yeats had in mind, with "Easter 1916", the hardening effects of political commitments, specifically those of Irish nationalists struggling against the English rule of his day. The object of his criticism was the dogmatism, verging on fanaticism, that he also sensed had to grip us when the only option against injustice and oppression becomes war (he was himself an ardent Irish nationalist). Tragically, the price of this over-commitment, Yeats tells us, is a violence done to time, to change, to the natural fluidity of life understood as open-endedness, contingency, process. Politics and poetry, though they often mix, rarely mix well. 

Prosenc Stearns’ art also suggests for me Yeats’ most famous poem, “The Second Coming,” principally because there the scope of the poet’s vision was so much wider. It encompassed the broader history (coming undone for him with the First World War) of a Western civilisation formed in tandem with a Christian faith that—predicated on the principle of everyone’s equality before God, before the God that is also “more in me than me” as St. Augustine put it— connects the believer to absolute truth. 

What “vexed” this civilisation to “darkness” and “nightmare” was again something “stony,” something present from the start that turns precisely on the conviction about truth always already there in our (unconscious) dreams. The suggestion is that this “stony sleep” leads us to omit, or miss sight of, a violence that is not just in us but, more significantly still, is the very fabrication of our interior substance, of a subjectivity uniquely bound up with sublimation and disavowal. Elsewhere in “Easter 1916,” Yeats wrote of the “terrible beauty” this violence engenders.

Prosenc Stearns, like Yeats, approaches the problems of modern subjectivity by situating it (and us) in the deeper historical contexts of an ambivalent “civilising process.” Where Yeats, in “The Second Coming,” dates this process from the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem (where that “rocking cradle” would be located), Prosenc Stearns takes us back to classical Greece, to the myths and principles that still today underlie what it is to be a person who is autonomous, self-governing, and “free” in the (categorical) imperatives of an exigent and intimate self-discipline—one beginning in an infancy as much our own as it is that of the modernity we live, and live less as a secularizing break than in continuity with our pre-modern past. 

It is the drama of this personhood that unfolds in Prosenc Stearns’ Caryatids, and not only there. In her Quartet, also available on Sedition, we see four videos of the human body, either alone, in mutual embrace, or with others. In each case, fluctuation and volatility are key. Bodies merge or pull apart in environments of teeming light and kaleidoscopic pattern from which at the same time they are not separate. They seem to be seeking in those environments a wholeness or fusion, a personal and/or social identity, that is also never settled, never finished. In one of these videos, Lamento, a hunched woman in silhouette slowly turns and turns amidst an intense watery medium (“troubling” the “living stream”). The more she turns and the more convulsive her gestures appear, the more convinced we are that her ordeal is one of fixing the limits of the body itself, with respect either to that environment in which she contends or to perturbations coming from within. The figure becomes less a woman than a bulging abstract shape that verges on the monstrous.


Lamento, from Quartet (2022), Nataša Prosenc Stearns

We are here, I think, in a distinctly psychoanalytic range associated with the work of Freud, that other modernist on whom I suspect Prosenc Stearns, distantly at least, takes her bearings as an artist. For Freud, relations between inside and outside were less given to us in a preassigned cosmic order, with its naturalised hierarchies and teleologies, than ends to be achieved in a meaningless universe (this did not stop him from soundings of his own in Greek myth).

Bodily integrity is a project, always in progress and always at risk in the cultural, social, and political media we inhabit. The squaring of stimuli (coming from the outside) with excitations (arising on the inside) generates a psycho-physical border we might think of as character armour, stabilising identity but also reducing it to simplified forms that simultaneously under-describe us. The compromises struck in these negotiations lead to a confusion of inside and outside; what Freud called “repression” was a dynamic according to which what is contained (or driven down) within returns from without, like the ghosts and zombies of popular culture or the neurotic tics, habits, psychosomatic disorders, and other symptomal hauntings that psychoanalysis has made its special purview as a therapeutic method. But even at its healthiest or most wholesome, on this Freudian account, identity is precarious and fragile. We are never at ease in ourselves.

Perhaps nowhere is this unease clearer than at the level of sexual identity, where the ordering of passions and sensations informs the sense we have of ourselves as men and women. Prosenc Stearns’ videographic representations of an always volatilised personhood work most consciously on this level, I would say, for both sexes but, as we have seen with Lamento, particularly for women. Her Caryatids series is a case in point. A first impression of the always dual female figures is one of uprightness and immobility—of the “power and endurance of women” through time, as the artist puts it in an accompanying text. As such they evoke an archetypal femininity that, going back to classical Greece, has long provided structural support to the societies and cultures that have sprung from its source.

In this rather more Jungian light, the Los Angeles architecture in which these figures appear to be quite literally inscribed reflects or ramifies their power of connecting and holding together, like webs they have themselves woven. When we notice filmed bits of earth, water, and sky layered into both the spaces and the figures themselves, making them shimmer, we understand that power to be almost metaphysical; in the words of Breda Kolar Sluga, the curator of the initial video installation of Caryatids, it helps to preserve an underlying “cosmological integrity.”

But Prosenc Stearns’ vision is also more tragic. It senses the absence of this “cosmological integrity” in the modernity that the buildings symbolise. In this (rather more Freudian) light, the female figures seem trapped in grid-like and decidedly masculine designs they haven’t made. Their immobility suggests paralysis. Even their supportive role feels controlled if not coerced, one of the subordinate functions to which women have been limited in patriarchal orders. Prosenc Stearns is thus hinting at something like Yeats’ “stone” and the violence of an ideality that permeates those designs. There is still dignity in her caryatids, but it is now bound up with a protest that gives to the shimmering motion in each image the value both of a process and contingency arrested (or repressed) in a regimented world and, more subtly, of an awareness that it is protesting itself which sets process and contingency in motion. 

For Prosenc Stearns, in other words, feminine identity, inherently tragic, is not distinct from those architectural backgrounds in the more “troubled” sense that it is implicated in, even complicit with, its own determination in that regimented world. Seen this way, her caryatids become deconstructions of the conventions, norms, and rules that govern feminine identity—not unlike, for instance, Cindy Sherman’s iconic self-portraits from the 1970s. We sense this intention in the fluctuating boundaries of the caryatids themselves, especially when they begin to lose consistency altogether. These disfigurations are not less exemplary of the liquid flow that characterises Prosenc Stearns’ feminine sensibility because they are violent. In becoming abstract or ghostly (if not monstrous), they dramatise the quandaries of being a woman, and above all a contemporary woman, in the hyper-modern contexts she gives them.             



From Caryatids (2023), Nataša Prosenc Stearns

If the claim that this amounts to a political art is debatable, what can be said I think is that Prosenc Stearns glances in Caryatids at a history for which Freud’s explorations of hysteria in the late 19th century were crucial. I recall Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” and the tortured pattern the story’s protagonist observes in the room where she is virtually incarcerated. It is also torturing:

On a pattern like this, by daylight, there is a lack of sequence, a defiance of law, that is a constant irritant to the normal mind. 

The color is hideous enough, and unreliable enough, and infuriating enough, but the pattern is torturing. 

You think you have mastered it, but just as you get well underway in following, it turns a back somersault and there you are. It slaps you in the face, knocks you down, and tramples on you. It is like a bad dream.

 The transposition of the pattern Gilman’s character sees into the pattern of her own psychological disintegration (she will eventually discover a woman in it) suggests a dynamic at work for Prosenc Stearns as well. Her caryatids are not just emblems of a “normal mind” trying to grasp its own incarceration. They are reflexive apprehensions of this “normal mind” as itself incarcerating, as itself the prison they not so much “occupy” as “are.” Their deliquescence in Prosenc Stearns’ frames is, then, the index of another kind of seeing, another kind of effort to understand, one that notices the problem of its own arrest (in all senses of the word) by way of distortion and disfiguration. They catch themselves out in their own “repression.” They are crazily rational.

That such an oxymoronic effort tells us something about the experience of being a woman at this late stage of our modernity seems undeniable when we consider the pressures women are under to be both social subjects and sexual objects. The current fads in removing buccal fat from cheeks, getting equine pelvic tucks, or otherwise editing one’s digital image through surgeries of various kinds (a multi-billion dollar business these days) are more extreme examples of squaring this circle, and I am tempted to see in the distortions and disfigurations that Prosenc Stearns foregrounds with Caryatids allusions to the mutilating violence these fads entail. But even in the absence of evidence that Prosenc Stearns had such examples in mind when she put her series together, she is clearly concerned with mystifications of beauty and sex that weigh in women as demands and conditions so onerous they cut into the flesh, blur corporeal boundaries, and vex a bodily integrity the right to which matters so much to us as civilised people. 

The artist might use here Breda Kolar Sluga’s phrase “Cosmological integrity” to denote what matters and hold to the support women give not to the form of life we have but to the ideal form of life it implies. And I can only concur that real connectedness and mutuality in the feminine spirit she cares about would be a good thing. But I suspect the artist in her would agree that acknowledging its absence today, as she does in Caryatids and elsewhere in her impressive corpus, is nonetheless crucial to that support, a component part of the struggle for an emancipation that would not come at the price of quite so terrible a beauty.

Stefan Mattessich

About the writer:

STEFAN MATTESSICH is an academic who has taught at different universities around the world. Educated at Yale and UC Santa Cruz, he has written a wide variety of cultural criticism including a monograph on the fiction of Thomas Pynchon entitled Lines of Flight, published in the Post-Contemporary Series at Duke University Press.

His essays have appeared in such venues as differences, Theory & Event, Postmodern Culture, ELH, New Literary History, Angelaki, and Modern Language Notes. He has also published two novels: Point Guard, a young adult story set on the Northern California coast of Mendocino; and East Brother, a satire about gentrification in a fictional California beach town. Later this year he will be publishing another novel, A Precarious Man, about the search for love and belonging in neoliberal times, to be issued by a new literary press, Atopon Books. He currently teaches English at Santa Monica College and lives in Los Angeles.

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