When it comes to manufacturing well-ordered chaos, nobody does it like Judy Pfaff. For more than a generation beginning in the late ‘70s, she has continuously reinvigorated sculpture by moving it into painterly, theatrical, performative and architectural directions. Despite challenges from the likes of Petah Coyne, Jessica Stockholder, Sarah Sze and others, Pfaff remains the undisputed queen of the realm. Her sprawling, room-sized constructions, which look like visions spewed from a kaleidoscope, are the unruliest and yet the most refined examples of stream-of-consciousness art making I can think of.
Stylistically and materially she’s an omnivore. If there’s organic or synthetic material that can be purchased on Canal Street (or scavenged), chances are she’s used it. If there’s an art-historical style worth quoting, she’s done that, too. Cubism, Action Painting, Pattern and Decoration, Arte Povera, Postminimalism, and geometric and biomorphic abstraction – she’s borrowed liberally from each to make installations that are at once earthly and astral, topographic and psychographic, conceptual and rigidly formal. As such, she is the quintessential postmodernist.
With that in mind, one might reasonably wonder how Pfaff’s multidirectional energies could possibly be contained in 3-D works that reside in 8 x 8’ aluminum frames. Answer: they can’t. The 11 “sculptural paintings” on view in "Tivoli Gardens" seem to be bursting from their boundaries — as if the addition of a little water and sunlight might launch them on a growth spurt that would engulf the room. Each appears like a freakishly beautiful cornucopia whose raw materials were harvested from different cultures and climate zones. Arranged according to a logic that at first seems obtuse, they reveal, on close inspection, an almost paranormal mastery of color, line, form, weight, balance and composition. Their structures may appear ad hoc, but they’re not. They are, as Irving Sandler once observed, accretions of "nonfocussed and nonhierarchical events," built from a boggling array of materials.
Tie-dyed coffee filters (folded to look like hothouse flowers), gourds, silk flowers, cardboard honeycomb packaging, origami, Asian newspapers, florist’s wire, branches, leaves, toy animals, musical scores, illustrations, netting, umbrellas, dried banana peels, cheesecloth and wasp’s nests were some of the ones I noted. The 3-D objects rest on or hang from layers of painted paper or cardboard grounds. These are cut into positive and negative shapes and collaged onto the surfaces, forming lines that skittle across the undulating topography with a nervous, electric energy that is vintage Pfaff. Apart from signaling the artist’s fondness for music, plants and Asian aesthetics, the excess in these works renders any attempt to read meaning into them null and void. For artist and viewer, these assemblages are about the joys of exploring (and improvising in) unknown terrain.
Navigating the maze that is Esopus, for example, I found myself racing along its various trajectories, anxious to discover what lay ahead, only to retrace my journey at the end of one “trail” and start anew from a different vantage point, circumnavigating hills, ravines and tributaries. Other pieces restrict such activity. Underbelly, the boldest, most overloaded piece in the show, stopped me with its impenetrable thicket of cardboard and artificial flowers. Viewed from afar there’s an equal amount of visual activity occuring in the spaces between the grounds and everything that’s piled on top of them. Overall, these gardens-run-amok evoke feelings that range from gothic (Rosie’s Bed) to elegiac (De Las Flores) to joyful (New Morning).
Where we experience Phaff’s installations bodily, by walking through them, we experience Tivoli Gardens cerebrally, by entering into them in the same way we would a painting. They urge us to dive in. The challenge is summoning the will to climb out.
–DAVID M. ROTH
Judy Pfaff, Tivoli Gardens @ Braunstein/Quay Gallery through Nov. 6, 2010.
Photos: David M. Roth