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Materials Matter @ Seager Gray

Maya Whitner, Epithelium, 2012, welded steel, 16 x 20 x 15"

This group show features the work of 15 sculptors who, working with materials as varied as nails, thread, books, clay and scrap wood and tree limbs, arouse tactile curiosities, perceptual conundrums and feelings of genuine poignancy – all under the simple, but effective rubric of material invention. 

Near the gallery’s entrance, I was confronted by Maya Whitner’s Epithelium (2012), one of the strongest pieces in the exhibition.  I say confronted because the piece, though small and situated on the ground, fully commands the space it inhabits.  The artist welds together steel and nails to produce forms that resemble seedpods and coral colonies, which are not things we typically associate with rigid, high-tensile strength materials.

Lisa Kokin, an artist who “sculpts” with a needle and thread, contributes two notable works. Piecework (2005), whose title refers to industrial sewing for which workers are paid a piece rate, literally strings together buttons and found objects, such as springs and miniature doll bodies to form a very abstract portrait her grandmother.  It’s an image laden with personal history and allusions to gender and class and to what someone of your grandfather’s generation might have called “handiwork.”

Lisa Kokin, detail, Piecework, 2005, mixed media, 72 x 45"

But in Kokin’s case that term is hardly a pejorative.  Take Primary (2012), in which the figures of an adult and a child are woven repeatedly into a transparent, mandala-shaped skein.  Its complexity and fragility could serve as a template for how ideas about memory and loss can be meaningfully invested in a work of art. Gyöngy Laky builds precisely engineered sculptures from twigs and branches that spell out words, phrases and symbols, reflecting her interest in architecture, design, geopolitics, eco-activism, language and nature.  Fragile Password (2012), whose component pieces spell out the word “Yes”, is a fine example. The wall-mounted piece reads like an aerial photograph of a lopsided city, a labyrinthine maze into which we are inexorably pulled. That visual seduction, however, yields only questions, the most obvious being: what, exactly, is being affirmed?

As the title of the exhibition indicates, material engagement is the means by which these artists identify, explore and resolve creative challenges. Andrew Hayes and Jacqueline Rush Lee repurpose books with little apparent concern for their original content.  They are raw material for transformation.  In Harrow (2012) and two other sculptures on view, Hayes joins metal and paper, bending each to form abstract constructions that communicate weightiness and lightness simultaneously, while foreclosing, with their metal casing, the pleasures of musty smells and the possibility of fluttering well-thumbed pages.  
Rush, who’s represented by The Book of R’s (2001) and Slice (2011), manipulates entire books.  She soaks, dries and joins them with screws, forming objects that resemble cross sections of tree trunks. Again, the urge to touch pages that were once lithe and are now warped and brittle was aroused, as was the thought that in creating objects that evoke the arboreal form from which books originate, Rush might commenting on the endangered art of bookmaking.
Jacqueline Rush Lee, from Book of R's Series, 2001

While largely populated by wood and steel, Material Matters also includes sculpture made of less sturdy substances.  Sibylle Peretti and her sometime collaborator, Stephen Paul Day, for example, use glass and napkins to explore opposing impulses.  The young figures in Peretti’s Wall of Tears (2009) show childhood as a battleground of competing physical and emotional drives, subject to intense observation and correction.  For Suicide Notes 9 and 3 (2012), Peretti, who works with Day under the name Club S & S, join distressed figures and short suicide notes in 12 enigmatic panels.  Such communications generally reveal why a person chose to end their life and offer, one would hope, some measure of closure for the survivors.  Peretti and Day’s notes do not, and reading them with that expectation only produces frustration.  And yet, not knowing whether these tales, beautifully realized in word and image, are true or fabricated stirred thoughts that lingered.

In all, Material Matters is well-balanced exhibition featuring sculptural work in a variety of media.  It features, as several recent shows in this space have, artists who successfully blur the distinction between craft and fine art.  In so doing, it challenges the notion – alive and well among a certain subset of conceptualists  – that ideas (alone) are more important than the manner in which they're realized.  Here we find a strong case for the opposing viewpoint: that materials and workmanship matter, too.
“Materials Matter”@ Seager Gray Gallery through March 31, 2013.
Cover Image: Andrew Haynes, Harrow, 2012, steel, book pages, brass, 10 x 18 x 6"

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