by David M. Roth
Thinkers from Plato to Derrida have debated the means by which language shapes perception. Gyöngy Laky, a San Francisco artist fluent in architecture, geopolitics, design and environmental activism, has been running her own investigations into these matters since the mid-1970s. The results can be seen in wall-mounted sculptures made of tree cuttings and bits of milled wood. Arrayed in dense thickets, they form words and symbols, their angular, interlocking pieces held together by screws. Examined closely, these dimensional puzzles crack open meanings you’ll not find in a dictionary.
Like the phonetic wordplay William T. Wiley uses to upend conventional “wizdumb,” Laky’s sculptures employ a similarly disruptive and sometimes punning strategy, visible in the interplay between the objects and their titles (e.g. Lie Ability, Golf Tease). Where Wiley’s mash-ups require viewers to sound-out words and phrases to make sense of them, Laky’s works require us to view them from multiple triangulating perspectives. It’s a classic postmodern strategy. Laky’s use of it holds out a tantalizing prospect: that natural forms are somehow analogous to those humans use to communicate.
Her practice is grounded in experience and research. She fled Budapest with her family in 1949 when she was five, arriving in the U.S. fluent in German and Hungarian. English she mastered by the time she entered grade school; French she picked in high school. After earning undergrad and graduate degrees from UC Berkeley, she founded and ran Fiberworks Center for Textile Arts in Berkeley from 1972 to 1977, and for 27 years beginning in 1978 she taught art and design at UC Davis before retiring as a full professor in 2005. During that time she traveled and worked in more than 40 countries, acquiring an understanding of half a dozen other languages, along with a keen appreciation of vernacular crafts (fencing, baskets and trellises), echoes of which can be seen in the artist’s outdoor installations and vessels.
While you may sense affinities between Laky’s art and the output of, say, Barbara Kruger, Patrick Dougherty, Giuseppe Penone and various other environmentally oriented land artists, her fusion of semiotics and craft is unique in its criticality. It addresses war, economic inequality, consumerism, healthcare and global warming, as well as issues relating to linguistics and phenomenology. Her part of the exhibition, which includes collaborations with several students (Shai Porath, Franziska Kolling, Brianne Evans, Kris Johnson) from Chico State, breaks no new ground. Nor does it need to. Laky’s approach remains evergreen: pliant enough to address the outrages de jour, accessible enough to reach everyone from the art-curious to the cognoscenti.
Two pieces that stand out are Ex Claim and Midnight in the 6th. The first is shaped like a giant exclamation point; the second is a question mark. Both, painted red, are about three feet tall. At a distance they give off the appearance of well-ordered avalanches. But if you look closely, which you must do to understand these pieces, you’ll see objects hidden in the crevasses: small plastic soldiers in Ex Claim, toy animals in Midnight after the 6th. The first is, obviously, a comment on war. The second is a veiled reference to The Sixth Extinction: an Unnatural History Elizabeth Kolbert’s groundbreaking history of the Anthropocene. Both works, I think, point to the human proclivity for denying what we can’t readily see or sense, a key component of our inability to meaningfully address climate change. (For more on that subject and how it’s connected to mass migration and armed conflict see the work of photojournalist Nicole Sobecki.) We Turn, a downward-facing arrow made of chartreuse-painted lengths of wood, looks like something Claes Oldenburg might have made. It resembles a mound of stacked asparagus spears. Its message, however, is not the stuff of feel-good Pop. It’s a trend line headed south.
Laky also throws in a few glib one-liners. A sculpture made of thorny branches spells out the word “Eat.” Another fashioned from the same material forms an untouchable grab bar. For me, the most compelling piece in this exhibition is a collection of severed branches called Climate Fugue 21. Spread across a wall they look like bleached bones mimicking sign language. That these cryptic shapes carry no discernable message does nothing to diminish the urge to find one. (Hard-wired pattern-matching instincts embedded in the human brain see to that.)
Meech Miyagi, a Sacramento artist whose work is paired with Laky’s, also employs organic matter. He uses it to probe potential links between things found in nature and the electrochemical algorithms governing human consciousness. This he does with freestanding, floor-mounted sculptures made of slender branches bent into wispy tendrils, which he wraps in white paper and lashes together with copper wire. They stand upright, three to five feet tall.
Miyagi, when asked about his work, speaks volubly about neuroscience, intimating that his sculptures are visualizations of mental processes, i.e. his own. While that may be difficult to grasp, you needn’t do so to fall under the spell of these objects. Tensions between nature’s
handiwork and that of the artist, give the pieces a crackling near-electrical intensity, the shapes of which resemble those coming off a Tesla coil. All of which is mildly unsettling and a bit otherworldly: a perfect counterweight to the issue-oriented eco-art of Gyöngy Laky.
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Gyöngy Laky and Meech Miyagi @ b. sakata garo through March 30, 2019.
About the author:
David M. Roth is the editor and publisher of Squarecylinder.