Frieze is an annual contemporary art fair held on Randall’s Island in New York City. It’s not quite Miami’s Art Basel, but with growing crowds, it’s getting there. With Frieze New York set to open on May 5, I was expecting during a visit last month to see the galleries dressed up for the new-flavor-affair art fair, but Chelsea wasn’t yet at its best. There were some excellent shows, most notably the abstract paintings of Qui Xiaofei at Pace, Serge Poliakoff at Cheim & Read and Stanley Boxer at Berry Campbell. But the quiet baseline served up a surprise: The best show in Chelsea, where the cream of the crop set up shop, was Portland artist Lauren Fensterstock’s “The Order of Things” at Claire Oliver.

Fensterstock’s work broadly feels like what you might have gotten if Louise Nevelson had made Goth grottos: oozing down from the soaring entry ceiling, three vast and bulbous charcoal stalactites greet the viewers. Even from a distance, they have the dream-intoxicated and dark-edged preciousness of Victorian fiction (think of the 19th-century black-clad gothic of Mary Shelley or Edgar Allen Poe).

In the main gallery, Fensterstock’s works come in three forms: a series of almost preciously detailed monochrome florals made of tiny shells or black paper under bell jars, which further the Victorian gothic flavor; a pair of three-foot glass-topped black cubes with black cut paper jungle-like floral interiors; and a trio of black hanging wall cabinets bubbling with alien-like floral growths.

Fensterstock’s black object surfaces are tar-rich and thick as though their paint medium is plastic tool dip. In her use of shells, her touch ranges from large, potent forms to tiny, feather-like baby mussel shells that play the part of flower petals. Her cut paper work reveals extraordinary facility combined with seemingly infinite obsessive insistence.

"Cave / Bouquet"

“Cave / Bouquet” Photos courtesy of Claire Oliver Gallery

It is not by chance that glass artist Beth Lipman also has work on view at Claire Oliver: Lipman has received international accolades for her obsessive full-table smorgasbord still lives of clear blown glass. But the nuance and sophistication of Fensterstock’s craft-oriented, concept-driven art pushes well past the ambition of Lipman’s work. Even Fensterstock’s title, “The Order of Things,” named after the English title of Michel Foucault’s seminal 1966 book “Les Mots et les Choses,” announces her philosophical engagement with critical theory and issues of discourse. Foucault’s book argues that what we can know (scientific discourses) changes as epistemological assumptions shift between historical eras.

This isn’t some vague connection for Fensterstock. She targets the leaky edges of Foucault’s conclusions. To wit, the bell jars are tools for scientific observation (either as dust covers or vacuum containers). And Fensterstock’s wall cabinets aren’t subtle in their references to the “wunderkammers” (cabinets of curiosities) which, from the Renaissance through the Victorian era, gathered as many geological, biological and anthropological objects from as far and wide as possible. Such prized collections ultimately developed into to our notion of museums (consider the Victorian and terrific L.C. Bates Museum in Hinckley), but they were status symbols for the wealthy and worldly with an imperialist twist. While such collections were ostensibly related to an Enlightenment mentality, Fensterstock reminds us how Baroque, Romantic and Victorian they now seem. And with her tar-black epistemological shell game, she reminds us that the foreign – the alien – is outside our discourse of knowledge because it is beyond our language.

What Fensterstock is showing us with “The Order of Things” is not what we know, but what things look like before we have reeled them in with labels and encyclopedic classification. And with the bell jar logic (think Sylvia Plath), the Nevelson black cabinets, Queen Victoria’s Victorianism, and the feminine art alternatives of craft and floral design, Fensterstock’s terms of “otherness” take a decidedly female character.

Fensterstock’s focus on scientific discourse, rather than science per se, allows us to follow her aesthetic trails through moral relativism fixed points like Mary Shelley’s 1818 gothic novel “Frankenstein” running thick with Romanticism’s critique of science (individual perspective versus objective truth). It allows a certain indulgence in the irrational aspects of her obsession with detail, aesthetics and material. With Romanticism as our guide not through the dark but into it, we are welcomed to indulge in the sublime aesthetics of Fensterstock’s art.

"Grotto 2"

“Grotto 2”

While clearly inspired by Foucault’s book, Fensterstock’s art does not require knowing anything about him to understand it. Her gothic aesthetic and Victorian weirdness blaze an easy path to the irrational and indescribable, for which science has no answer. And in a Chelsea gallery, it’s easy to see we’ve been here before: Heinrich Wofflin’s seminal book, “Renaissance and Baroque,” for example, sees all art through the ages as cycling back and forth between rational (Renaissance) and emotional (Baroque). Fensterstock’s repeated use of the term “Baroque” makes a strong case for what she’s doing.

It can be argued that Frankenstein’s monster has been reanimated in the form of zombies – which have overrun American popular culture. Fensterstock’s work hints at the reason: Maybe we’re shifting from a historical moment defined by scientific knowledge toward one defined by our obsessions, emotions, fears and notions of otherness. With a delicately gorgeous touch in her indefatigable efforts to breathe new life into fine craft and dark Romanticism, Fensterstock, whatever her intentions, has brought to life some very powerful and conceptually robust contemporary art.

Freelance writer Daniel Kany is an art historian who lives in Cumberland. He can be contacted at:

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