When it came to fashioning existing forms into new and sometimes barely recognizable hybrids Jay DeFeo (1929-89) was a master. After creating The Rose, a one-ton magnum opus in oil that consumed eight years (1958-66) and left her drained, DeFeo, in 1970, resumed at a more modest scale, executing, with equal intensity, works that combined painting, drawing, collage, set-up photography and photocopy. Her ostensible subjects were household items and studio detritus: fabric, tools, plants, jewelry, vegetables, paper scraps and the like. These she subjected to every process at her disposal, and the results, took on anthropomorphic, sci-fi, and, sometimes, mystical qualities owing to a free-range imagination that turned one thing into another with breathtaking alacrity.
Mechanics, the Hosfelt Gallery’s second exhibition devoted to this aspect of the artist’s career, coincides with a full-on DeFeo retrospective at SFMOMA opening Nov. 3. Where the gallery’s initial installment mixed painting, drawing, photography and photocopier-based collage in more or less equal parts, Mechanics zooms in on photography and drawing, examining in even greater depth, the fluid relationship between the mechanical and the hand-crafted elements of the artist’s practice. It will, I suspect, provide a counterweight to the more bravura aspects of a career that, for too long, has been overshadowed by The Rose, a masterpiece owned by the Whitney Museum of American Art.
By contrast, DeFeo’s works on paper present a visible record of her working process. It spun out in many directions. She’d sometimes unfold ideas chronologically. At other times, like a composer recycling melodic strains, she’d append old motifs to new forms months or even years after introducing them. The works weren’t made for public display; they were studies, experiments in the transformation of form, and as such they carried no titles, just series identification. They offer a highly telescoped view of a storied career. Where her paintings, both before and after The Rose, stand as discrete, independent objects, her post-Rose works on paper are all about the serial unfolding of ideas.
The exhibition opens with a small black and white photo of a vacuum cleaner, which, owing to the machine’s pre-WWII vintage and the odd camera angle, is barely recognizable as such; it looks like prosthesis wedded to an office chair. In a second image, she drapes a shawl across the vacuum’s handle and arranges the power cord in a snaky loop at the bottom of the frame. Next comes a photo collage in which pieces of the machine are strangely reassembled, looking, to my eye, like a roller skate on a stick. It’s followed by two drawings in which that image is reworked into something resembling a human knee joint. By themselves, these images are hermetic curiosities. Read together, as a progression, they’re stunning.
Like the Dadaist and the Surrealists, DeFeo understood the transformative power of combining different media. Her assemblages of cut-up photos made on a copy machine yield some of the show’s highlights. The trio of images in which she tops the shape of an angel (originally created by Bruce Conner) with vacuum cleaner heads and a light bulb show how tools become extensions of the body. Likewise, her three-part transformation of a tripod – which morphs from something resembling a half-clothed human figure to an aorta to a space ship – feels like a stop-motion conjuring act, as does so much else in the show.
Oracle from the One O’clock Jump series, replicates the shape of a broken tape dispenser with a series of concentric circles made with a compass. The surprise is how wispy gestures around the edges invest this mundane object with a swirling kinetic energy, an apt quality for a series named after Count Basie’s theme song. Elsewhere, DeFeo performs expansive improvisations on a piece of jewelry and a shoetree. She emphasizes the angularity of the shapes, but blunts their sharpness with soft monochromatic colors, shading and mark making. Through these machinations, earrings become UFOs and shoetrees become cubist-tinged, biomorphic abstractions whose real-life origins can only be discerned from wall labels.
Other pleasures can be found in the artist’s application of paint: in the transparent, luminous layers of grey on white on black, and in the silhouetting of forms, white against black.
Ironically, DeFeo didn’t think much of her drafting ability. Hosfelt likens such doubts to “a bulimic thinking she’s fat.” Proof of her skill in that realm abounds: in the “negative” spaces she used to foreground “positive” objects; in the marks she used to delineate volume; and in the many visual nonsequiturs she tossed into compositions. The cylindrical fragment that appears off to the left in two of the untitled shoetree drawings, for example, bears little relationship to the subject. Yet without it, the drawings would feel incomplete.
Such practices highlight DeFeo's compositional instincts and the degree to which she was able to continuously reimagine objects in her immediate vicinity.
To underscore that point, Hosfelt inserts, about three quarters of the way through the exhibition, a small black and white painting — the first from the Samurai series, made in 1987, two years before the artist died. It’s a spectacular work, bursting with slashing gestural energy. Yet in this context it feels almost static, like a still shot inside a motion picture. Its presence here points to the symbiotic relationship between the two sides of her practice as well as the profound differences.
Mechanics ends, appropriately, with two color photocopies, both of which show a compass and the artist’s fingers. Their saturated colors feel slightly lurid inside an exhibition that is almost wholly monochrome, but they sum up as well as anything DeFeo’s commitment to fusing the manual and the mechanical – and, to using both techniques to achieve synthesis through serialism.
–DAVID M. ROTH
Jay DeFeo: “Mechanics” @ Hosfelt Gallery through December 8, 2012.
Learn more about Jay DeFeo.
"Cover" composite (details): Untitled (Bruce conner angel collages, c. 1975-76, photomechanical reproductions and gelatin silver prints. Each approximately 9 x 4"
All images this article © 2012 The Jay DeFeo Trust/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.