by Maria Porges
Covered in Sky, Amy Trachtenberg’s show of recent work at the Luggage Store Gallery, offers a meditation on an interesting set of questions and issues facing artists in an era of growing income inequality, political polarization and daily revelations of abuse related to race, class and gender. Can abstraction address such issues? Is the personal political, as second-wave feminism posited it to be?
For Trachtenberg—and, by extension, her viewers—the answer is yes. Her textile-rich paintings incorporate an astonishing variety of materials, including, but not limited to, bicycle inner tubes, zippers, bedding, found photos, cloth remnants, briefcases, baby clothes, hardware and studio drop cloths. Her affinity for textiles originates in childhood experience—she comes from a family in which “Generations of men…were traveling salesmen in the so-called rag trade”—but was also enriched by the time she spent as an assistant to eminent fiber sculptor Sheila Hicks. Trachtenberg dyes, prints, stencils cuts up her own drop cloths and sews them into patchworks that sometimes suggest aerial views of devastated landscapes or maps of lost civilizations. The word palimpsest comes to mind when examining works like Travelogue (2018), with its successive layers of painted and woven textures, as does the word’s secondary meaning, as something reused or altered in which traces of previous uses/ lives are still visible. Most works have been stretched onto wooden supports, asserting their identity as paintings, but even this seems to be something she feels free to adjust, propping one of them (The Town Refastened, 2018) on a plinth of wooden blocks or gluing a strip of fluorescent Plexiglas along the left edge of two others. Both acts leave an opening of sorts, as if these pieces are still in transition or open to additional actions.
This assessment—and, really, any response to the works arranged around the gallery’s walls — is shaped by the presence of an enormous sculpture that stands in the center of the room, reaching up nearly 13 feet into the well of the skylight. Standing on One Leg Swallowing the Mountain of Appearances (2019) consists of a precarious-looking stacked bundle of folded and rolled foam scraps, tied up like a parcel with various kinds of cord and string and balanced on and in a vintage wheeled cart. Several single shoes have been all but immured between the layers, with only an edge or a bit of an upper still visible: clear reminders of the worn possessions of the homeless, forced to move their worldly goods around from place to place. They also recall the pile of shoes that is one of the most painful exhibits of the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC. It’s possible that this reading comes to mind due to the recent camp internment of immigrants at US borders, but Trachtenberg collected most of the shoes for her piece on the streets of SOMA, where she has had a studio for decades: a front-row seat for the transformation of San Francisco into a city of haves and have-nots.
Trachtenberg is fully aware of the psychological effect of this work on the show as a whole. Since the late ‘70s, she has designed sets for plays, dance performances and even opera, and has realized projects on a massive scale (her design for the platform area of the Milpitas BART station will open this fall). Seen in this context, the minimal gesture of a stack of clothing, in a palette of reds and pinks that has been shoved between a pipe and the wall (Writing to reach you, 2018) also suggests a temporary storage solution, or perhaps another monument to loss. Still, it seems clear that Standing on one leg’s haunting mass of tan and pink foam isn’t just about the homelessness crisis here, or about Trachtenberg’s own diasporic family history– or even the mass migrations that are taking place all over the world. Like Christian Boltanski’s giant installations of discarded clothing, Trachtenberg’s installation suggests, both figuratively and literally, that despite the near-constancy of strife and trauma in human history, people are resilient, piecing together what they can find and figuring out a way to go on.
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Amy Trachtenberg: “Covered in Sky” @ Luggage Store Gallery through August 10, 2019.
Maria Porges is an artist and writer who lives and works in Oakland. For over two decades, her critical writing has appeared in many publications, including Artforum, Art in America, Sculpture, American Craft, Glass, the New York Times Book Review and many other publications. The author of more than 100 exhibition catalog essays, she presently serves as a professor at California College of the Arts.