Creativity comes in twos at The Hole in Manhattan. Giant smiley face sculptures by Misaki Kawai inhabit the gallery’s front hall, luring spectators with vibrant visuals, secret ciphers, and the prospect of actually touching the art. But venturing further afoot reveals a second exhibition on-view from January 7th until February 14th, arguably more curious than its counterpart: Double Happiness. A collaboration between painter Caroline Larsen and ceramicist Roxanne Jackson, the mixed-media show highlights the harmony of two unique styles, set against a soft green backdrop designed to draw attention from afar. Perception soon turns into deception up-close, as viewers confront a series of optical illusions intended to startle, seduce, and stimulate. Seeing double is simply the start of a long trip through the looking glass.
At first glance, Double Happiness exudes the elegance of a lavish living room, only with a contemporary twist. Ornate vases sit delicately on mirrored plinths while imposing oil paintings balance behind them, arranged carefully around the perimeter. High ceilings contribute a sense of depth to the dynamic space. Once this air of formality fades away, however, it’s exchanged for fascination. Each artwork on display demonstrates an intricate interplay between form, subject, and significance. The color scheme alone is bright enough to blind a bystander. With the whimsy of a psychedelic hallucination, Larsen’s paintings possess an astounding ability to allure, then discombobulate. Likewise, Jackson’s replicated vases aren’t ordinary decor, but funky relics rooted in feminism, disrupting the construct of craft itself. Double Happiness doesn’t just denote the amalgamation of two artists – it’s a clever riff off duplication as a central concept.
Though glossed over in the press release, the exhibition’s premise hinges on Chinese history. Its title alludes to the Chinese character for “double happiness,” comprising two connected copies of xi (囍), or happiness. Dating back to the Tang Dynasty, the symbol originates from a legend concerning a student who fell ill along his journey to pass an examination. While he recovered in a remote mountain village, he became enamored with an herbalist’s daughter, who gave him an incomplete poem to illustrate her love. Eventually, he passed his exam by coupling her poem with his assignment, creating a perfect synthesis of stanzas. During their marriage ceremony, the pair proudly displayed the character for happiness, repeated twice to represent their fateful union. Double Happiness has served as a proverb of prosperity in Chinese culture ever since, appearing on wedding invitations, decorations, and more.
Both artists interpret this theme broadly. Jackson, who engages with historical traditions of patterning, put a spin on played-out, typically feminine techniques. Created in hues of white and cobalt, her glazed ceramics take inspiration from Dutch Delftware and Chinese Porcelain. Only instead of genre scenes or somber symbols, her modern motifs evoke an erotic effect. In one sculpture, Red, Gold, and Black Magick, a smorgasbord of scattered images mesh surprisingly well, among them six-sided dice, slinking spiders, and slithering snakes. Another titled Mother Vase places Japanese koi fish next to fluttering butterflies, sporting a chain over its narrow neck. Puckered mouths with black lipstick, gold grills, or tongue rings comprise a common denominator between the different depictions, all devised in delicious, three-dimensional detail. Ignoring my instincts to reach out and grab them required a masterclass in restraint.
Then there’s Caroline Larsen, a three-time veteran of The Hole. Double Happiness is her most recent exhibition with the gallery, following Kabloom! (2016) and Kaleidoscopic (2019). With her new works, the multi-disciplinary artist diversifies her references to include Mexican Talavera pottery and Italian Valceresio vases. Her impasto paintings prove even more tantalizing over time. In Double Dali Butterfly Ship, surrealism meets still life on two twin vases, where flowers fuse like lovers once lost at sea. Double Vision multiples this magic, featuring four female figures fashioned in beige or blue. A scintillating background recedes into distant realms in Tube Only Flowers with Carlton Ware Vase, distorting reality with a checkered ombre. What stands out most are the paintings’ goopy, thick textures, transcending anything a camera could capture. Granted, this is all the more reason to visit Double Happiness in person.
Roxanne Jackson and Caroline Larsen make a talented tag-team. Together, they disrupt the decorative arts canon with a distinct flair, neither too self-important nor heavy-handed. Barring its physical fragility, the exhibition emanates a playfulness to be expected from The Hole. Ultimately, though, the pair’s natural synergy is what renders this show a success. It’s evident in how the mixed-media steadies each other in leveled conversation, every piece equal in intensity. Double Happiness brings a much-needed spark of joy back to The Bowery, where dreary winter days seem to drone on in an infinite pandemic-induced loop. Rather than roam about aimlessly, I’m glad I went inside to get a glimpse.
*Double Happiness is on-view from January 7th to February 14th at The Hole NYC / 312 Bowery Street.