How much torsion can the human body take? More than we thought, perhaps. These last two brutal years have tested the limits of our emotional and physical strength and flexibility. If you’re feeling stretched, and bent out of shape, and buffeted by fate — and who isn’t? — you might sympathize with the spindly characters who populate the canvases of “Body Language,” which is now on view in the first floor gallery of the Hamilton Square Condominiums (232 Pavonia Avenue). There, an artist going by the heady name of Occipital has mounted a show that feels simultaneously timeless and very much of the moment: an examination of the human form under stress, bending like a bough in a gale.
Occipital’s figures don’t have faces. Though they strongly suggest female identity, they don’t exactly possess gendered characteristics, either. They don’t even have context: the white ones are painted on solid black backgrounds, and the black ones are painted on bright white. (One canvas displays a black-outlined figure in white on a white background, but that’s about as far from her own formula as the artist goes). Occipital’s best images are studies of the expressive power of human posture — body position as a kind of poetry, stark and plain, pared-back, bluntly eloquent.
These postures suggest acquiescence to the reality of mighty forces. In a series of acrylic paintings on canvas titled “I Will Bend But I Will Not Break,” Occipital’s figures are stretched and twisted, their thin arms crossed like wheat-stalks in the wind, their torsos folded back at angles that would concern an orthopedist, their thin oval heads attached to shoulders by little wisps of neck. Slight variations in tone and texture in their black-and-white backgrounds suggest movement, and broad and visible brushstrokes connote troubled emotional weather. Yet no matter how contorted the bodies get, Occipital has managed to preserve these characters’ sense of poise. These are portraits of dignity amidst difficulty, and if you can’t identify with them at all, I reckon you missed 2020-2021.
It all may seem a little too familiar, though. Occipital’s figures have many antecedents in the battery of popular images — most notably Giacometti, whose sculpted walkers with blank faces and elongated, twiglike limbs speak so passionately about determination amidst the unbearable pressures of modern life. Giacometti drew inspiration from African and Oceanic art, and it’s likely that Occipital does, too. But her work may also remind you of vintage American fashion illustrations and clothing designers’ sketches: faceless female bodies in silhouette, arms and legs like rails, heads tilted, shoulders provocatively angled, their bearings at once alluring and vulnerable.
Occipital’s figures aren’t explicitly eroticized; they aren’t explicitly anything at all. Yet when two or more of her characters share a frame, the ambiguity is often multiplied — and this leads to the most intriguing work in the “Body Language” show. What, for instance, are the two figures, conjoined at the hand, doing in “Perspective 3672”? One stands, poised and receptive, while the other, with a shoulder pitched forward and a knee bent, leans in. It could be the prelude to a kiss, it could be an argument, it could be an act of teaching or a solicitation to dance. What’s unmissable is the sense of tenderness that radiates from the acrylic: the intimacy of two humans in a tight space, arranging their bodies in a manner that complements their partner.
This wordless conversation becomes a silent chorus on “Perspective 2448 (a-e)”, a five-panel painting that finds room for fifty of Occipital’s figures in various states of motion. Without showing any faces, the artist captures profound interpersonal ambivalence — people tugged in inviting directions by the magnetic fields generated by other bodies.
So successful is Occipital at communicating complicated feelings through proxemics alone that you might wonder why she bothers to include written words in some of her less successful paintings. Her “During Q” series, mostly done in gouache, write emotional states directly into the pictures: “thankful,” “confused,” “wild,” etcetera. Coming from a woman who understands the force of body language, these captions feel redundant. The crossed arms, antenna-thin legs, and angled heads of her characters have already had their say — and they’ve said plenty.
“Body Language” will be on view in the Hamilton Square Condominium lobby until December 27, 2021. Occipital will be present during Jersey City Art & Studio Tour dates and hours: Friday, Oct. 1 from 4-6 p.m., Saturday, Oct. 2 from 12-4 p.m., and Sunday, Oct. 3 from 12-4 p.m.