Therefore, An Ogre
“What does the ogre do deep in the mythological forest?” Helen Marten asks in the booklet accompanying her exhibition “Therefore, An Ogre” at Greene Naftali Gallery. “Does the ogre spit rubbled language into piles from which stripped sentences might be plucked to diagram the substance of trees and soil? Does the ogre produce techniques of domination for and against the material world?”
The ogre, according to the gallery, is only “syntax deep”—it has been conjured from a pun: the mirrored invocation of “Ergo, an ogre.” From those depths, Marten spins out an entire universe of possibility. Across works on paper, paintings on aluminum, steel windows and sculpture, the artist plays with words, symbols and mysticism.
The works on view, though physically framed, wrestle their way out of any kind of circumlocution. See, the drawing of a purple unicorn with the word “kim” suspended over its head, or the names of four Baroque artists surrounded by a smattering of numbers like a slurring clock. Even the aluminum rafters, like everything else here, do not behave the way they should: Marten has affixed them between wall and floor—they spike out their aluminum beams like a spiky barricade.
The operative action in this exhibition is the slide. Words signal only at the peripheries of their typical meanings. The ogre, codified in myth, slides into the Fool of Tarot or else into clowns, who hide behind each of the three inset windows. One of those paintings, Third Policeman (the candle burned) (2021) is a matrix of near-meaning. The words that stretch across the center of the airbrush- and nylon-on-aluminum work, when pieced together into grammatical order, are evocatively unclear in their referents. “The lovely scented candle burned continually on the table,” the painting reads. What candle? What table? The rest of the work garners no answers, offering, if anything, speech even further broken. “WOW They Have Everything In there?” the clown asks another, who replies, only the rightmost edge of his speech bubble showing: “!!”
Perhaps more than any other monster, the ogre spins out of the horrors of humanity: it is hideous, man-like; it eats infants. As a result of its half-man, half-myth status, its cannibalistic instincts, it is the container, too, for all his half-spoken, half-dreamed desires. Here, as maybe always, myth and magic beat out reason. —Lisa Yin Zhang
Helen Marten, Third Policeman (the candle burned), 2021. Airbrush on alumnim, Nylon ink transfer, Perspex, 50 x 42 1/8 x 3 1/8 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Greene Naftali, New York. Photo: Zeshan Ahmed