The Numinous Artwork of Adrienne Elise Tarver
by Lisa Volpe
Numen is the best word. Though this term—drawn from Roman paganism—is far removed from our contemporary context, it remains the best description of the method by which artist Adrienne Elise Tarver’s project succeeds. A numen is a spirit, especially one believed to inhabit a particular object. Though the word might seem foreign or antiquated, the concept is familiar, even in our digital age. We all have a tendency to collect numinous objects: the tassel from your graduation cap, a pressed flower from a romantic date, or a scruffy teddy bear that is emblematic of childhood. Numinous objects “concretize [the] abstract.” With these objects, concepts such as being, time, and/or memory are embodied in the tangible. This connection is not inherent; instead it is created and can die away. A numinous object exists as long as a single person remembers the connection between the object and the significant person, place, or event it references. In the same way, a numen loses its power when all those who remember the association are lost.
Numinous objects reveal more than memories, they speak to psychological needs. Psychologist Paul Bloom argues that the history of an object changes how we experience it. Bloom emphasizes that our pleasure with an object increases with knowledge of its history. In short, we desire objects with history. In her work, Tarver builds upon this connection between objects, history, and desire in order to investigate issues of transgression and voyeurism. In her multi-media installation, Eavesdropping, Tarver constructs and presents a host of numinous objects, making concrete the abstract concepts of knowledge and desire.
Tarver’s foundational numinous object was found at a thrift store. Amid the second-hand items, her artist’s eye focused on a photograph. In the image, a young, black woman wearing glasses sits on a chair and stares directly back at the camera. The numinous connection between the sitter and her life had been severed, the memories lost. Her name and history is unknown. Instead, the photograph had become just another object in the thrift store. That photo with its simple composition nonetheless held a particular attraction for the artist. She desired its history. To Tarver, the way in which the woman was sitting, her clothing, and her direct, confident gaze out of the image struck her immediately. This yellowing photograph with its curved edges and mysterious sitter would become the touchstone for the work Eavesdropping.
To fully understand Tarver’s artistic project in Eavesdropping, it is important to compare it to an earlier body of work. In her series Home, Tarver recreated her childhood home in Georgia in the form of a small-scale model. “It’s the first home that I remember,” recalls the artist, who moved from New Jersey, to Georgia, and onto the Chicago suburbs all before the age of 10. “It’s a specific part of my life,” she notes, “yet, I couldn’t finish the model because I didn’t have the full memory.” When she had taken the model to the limits of her memory, Tarver turned to photography, capturing it in a series of images.
Though Tarver would abandon personal narratives in her subsequent work, the warmly lit images in Home nevertheless represent the artist’s core concerns. Ideas of memory and desire are articulated in an object: a numen in the shape of a miniature model of her home. The specific connection between the space of the home and art is advanced in the work of Gaston Bachelard. Indeed, Tarver notes that Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space was a reference point for the work. Bachelard’s phenomenological interrogation explores the meaning of space from the standpoint of art and poetry. The house, for Bachelard, is a metaphorical source of poetic images, the protector of our intimate lives. Notably, the theorist insists that the house is not an object that can be satisfactorily described, because much of its potency lies in its intimate meaning. In essence, what Bachelard describes is a home’s numinous quality. The house is more than its structure. It is an object or space that comes to represent our inner lives and invokes our memories.
Yet with the idea of space comes the paired notions of in/out; interior/exterior; within/without. Building on the work of poet Rainer Maria Rilke, Bachelard noted that “inside” and “outside” are in dynamic continuity, rather than geometrical opposition. Through poetry and art, interior lives (thoughts and feelings) can be turned inside out and given physical form (the home), their inner being revealed to the eye of the beholder.
Tarver’s series Home is an artistic expression of interior and exterior relationship. This particular home is, as Tarver noted, the last space “we entered as a family, and left as a family.” The artist’s brother passed away after the family moved from the Georgia home to the Chicago area. “The idea of absence and the impossibility to return to a place and a former version of life fueled a lot of that project,” she notes.
Tarver’s personal desires to return and remember are represented by the home—a private interior given spatial dimension. This connection is reflected in the compositions themselves. Each of the images in the series clearly depicts windows, doors, and in one case, a fireplace. These physical passages between interior and exterior underscore the idea that the numinous space of the home unites these realms.
Though unwritten and unspoken, there is a common belief that the role of the artist is to open their lives to us. The viewer has come to expect such easy access. When it comes to artists, the barrier between interior and exterior is meant to be unguarded. Who can think of Jackson Pollack’s work without also recalling his battles with addiction? Why do we remember Vincent van Gogh’s severed ear along with his Sunflowers? According to Michael Hatt and Charlotte Klonk:
In the Western world we often hold the deeply ingrained belief that whatever the fruits of our labour, they will bear the traces of our unique individuality and this belief implies that the way to gain understanding of the meaning of a work of art is to relate it to an artist’s personality or experience.
Just as there is a desire to know, there is a history of artists contesting this desire.
In spatial terms, what Bachelard and Rilke desired in art can be described as a form of trespassing. Bruce Nauman’s video installation, Mapping the Studio plays on this idea. The work is a full 5-hours and 45-minutes. Seven projections each show Nauman’s studio from different angles, each shot at night with a cheap infrared camera. The sound is mere ambient noise – wind, the mechanical whirl of an air-conditioner, and the occasional train-whistle. Nauman’s work fulfills our artistic, voyeuristic desires. We are given unfettered access to the artist’s studio, a representation of the inner creative world of the artist expressed in an exterior space. Yet, the gray-green images, nighttime setting, and style of the work recall surveillance cameras or clandestine activity. Mapping the Studio urges the viewer to consider his or her own desire to merge the interior and exterior worlds of the artist as a type of voyeurism.
When Tarver purchased the photograph of the unknown woman at the thrift store, she embraced a tabula rasa. Working both with and against the human desire to perceive art as numinous, Tarver began to construct a home and possessions for her anonymous muse, who she named Vera Otis.
My recent work explores the life of a woman from a found black and white photograph. Young, black, female, wearing glasses and facing the camera, she felt both familiar and distant at the same time. Enticed by her anonymity, I’ve been creating the narrative of her life in paintings and documented her home and possessions, built as miniatures, through photography and video.
Together, these photos and videos became the installation, Eavesdropping. Though her previous series Home conforms to the common desire and ingrained belief that a work of art reflects its maker, in the installation, Tarver forces the viewer to question this desire and warns of its extremes.
When the viewer enters the dark gallery in which Eavesdropping is on view, they are immediately confronted with a video projection on the left. The projection merges 8 artist-created vignettes, each lasting 30 seconds to 1 minute. The clips show a well-made house model. At times the camera pans slowly over the exterior of the house. Other times, it is stationary and the view is partially blocked by the leaves of outdoor palms or hidden by the darkness of night. We cannot control the limited views we are getting. Similarly, we cannot completely follow the accompanying audio track - a woman’s quiet voice, engaged in what sounds like a one-sided telephone conversation. Try as we might to perform the role of the eavesdropper and voyeur, the house and the conversation remain a mystery.
Nearby in the gallery, a collection of 12 photographs highlight objects from the house: a desk set, a bronze statue, a dresser and wigs. On a bench nearby, a booklet, “Estate Sale of Ms. Vera Otis,” listed each of these items as if they were headed for an auction:
Standing Nude Sculpture, Bronze, Spain
Condition: Minimal wear, increased patina with age
Provenance: Acquired from anonymous collector
In our minds, we strive to unite these disparate objects into a collective definition of their owner. We aim to read them as numinous objects. Yet, this understanding is also just out of reach. Moving past these photos, the viewer encounters several light boxes. Unlike the video, these brightly lit images of the house model offer the viewer the opportunity for a prolonged look of the rooms and objects within them. The room itself is wallpapered with large, green foliage.
The relationship between exterior and interior is writ large in Eavesdropping. Notably, the work consistently places the viewer “outside.” Try as we might, we cannot go into the house or examine it the way we’d like in the video. We cannot understand the telephone conversation. The 12 individual objects do not add up to a full understanding of their owner. Even the painted wallpaper recalls “live fencing,” — plants used to create a home barrier — its repetition emphasizing our placement outside of this imagined home.
Tarver does not attempt to pass off the models she created as real objects or the plants as live examples. Their status as mere facsimile is never in question. Similarly, in her descriptions, Tarver never attempts to hide the work’s fictional ties to the anonymous photo. By emphasizing an exterior position and denying the viewer any sort of reality, Tarver has severed the tie between interior life and physical form. The numinous objects — home, statue, wigs — do not reference any real history. Instead they reify the abstract concepts of knowledge and desire. The viewer is denied the interior/exterior connection that Bachelard and Rilke coveted, forcing them to confront their own desire for such continuity.
The home and objects are not the focus of the installation, nor is the woman in the photograph that inspired the photos and video. Much like Nauman’s Mapping the Studio, Tarver places her viewer at the center of the work of art. Layout, title, text and especially media emphasize this focus. While the installation swirls around the visitor, the text of the booklet, “The Estate Sale of Vera Otis,” specifically calls out the viewer, implicating them in the work:
Mission Style Desk Set
Chair with cushion, Desk with six drawers
Condition: Some scratches desk surface
Provenance: Owner inherited from your grandmother
Similarly, the strict use of photographic imagery — both film and photo — emphasizes a voyeuristic position. Photography, after all, is the gaze given physical form. It reifies the dialectical relationship between observer and observed and calls into question the legitimacy of looking.
In her description of the work, Tarver notes:
The urge to explore, whether looking into the neighbor’s window or a colonizer conquering ‘undiscovered’ territory, implies a sense of prerogative of the viewer and disregard for the privacy of the other…I’m interested in the space where looking becomes a transgression and what is seen reveals more about the viewer, than the viewed.
Similarly, art critic and curator Michael Rush, states, “It is a short leap from looking (fixing one’s gaze upon another) to voyeurism (taking delight in extended gazing) to spying (surreptitiously studying the actions of another).” This, in fact, is the short distance Eavesdropping transports the viewer. Offering both a look (in the video), a voyeuristic view (the estate photos and light boxes), and a chance to spy (the installation as a whole), Tarver moves her viewer along, all the while questioning their desire.
Nothing is as it first seems in the art of Adrienne Elise Tarver. Her installation, Eavesdropping, is rich with dualities and paradoxes. The work of art conveys a strong sense of place and presence, yet it leaves these two elements undefined. Trading on our deep human desire to connect objects such as the home or a work of art, to the owner or maker, Tarver questions our right to know. The photos and video that make up Eavesdropping have a particular power that transcends their subject — a model house — and their physical boundaries. The best word for this, perhaps, is numen.
 Maines and Glynn, “Numinous Objects,” 10.
 Paul Bloom, The Origins of Pleasure, video, 16:17, July 2011, https://www.ted.com/playlists/61/objects_of_desire
 Adrienne Elise Tarver in discussion with the author, September 10, 2016.
 Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space (Boston: Beacon Press, 1994).
 Adrienne Elise Tarver, e-mail message to author, November 13, 2016.
 Michael Hatt and Charlotte Klonk, Art History: A Critical Introduction to its Methods (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2006), 14.
 Adrienne Elise Tarver, “Statement,” Peripheral Vision Arts, accessed September 10, 2016, http://www.peripheralvisionarts.org/tarver-profile/
 Niamh Coghlan, “Voyeurism, Surveillance, and the Camera,” Aesthetica Magazine, accessed November 4, 2016, http://www.aestheticamagazine.com/voyeurism-surveillance-and-the-camera/
 Adrienne Elise Tarver, “Statement.”
 Quoted in Richard Salkeld, Reading Photographs (London: A&C Black, 2014), 123.