Critics’ Picks

Alice Aycock, Masonry Enclosure: Project for a Doorway—Section, 1976, graphite on tracing paper, 34 1/4 x 24".

Alice Aycock, Masonry Enclosure: Project for a Doorway—Section, 1976, graphite on tracing paper, 34 1/4 x 24".

New York

Alice Aycock

Grey Art Gallery
100 Washington Square East New York University
April 23–July 13, 2013

Two monumental schematic drawings of hundreds of doorways, stitched together in neat adjoining rows, dominate Alice Aycock’s retrospective of drawings. In The New China Drawing: The World Above, the World Below, 1984, Aycock’s craggy forms evoke a map of Canton, China drawn by seventeenth-century Dutch explorer Johan Nieuhof following his fifteen-thousand-mile trek through China’s provinces. This journey was notably reproduced in social historian and curator Bernard Rudofsky’s seminal treatise on vernacular form, Architecture Without Architects(1964), Aycock, for her part, transforms this source material into a map of an aging woman’s memories, the doors (each symbolic of a week’s worth of time) surmounting maps of land, sea, and sky, creating palaces of memory.

In their architectural precision, works like The New China Drawing are rabbit holes of culled source material: Aycock deftly inserts her own narratives alongside the more esoteric material of Nieuhof and Rudofsky, effectively performing the kind of broad transcultural sweep that historians eschew these days. But then again, Aycock isn’t a historian—and happily so. By Aycock’s hand, a tunnel is not just an underground structure, but is variably connected to Egyptian burial sites, prison design, and suburban playgrounds. In one particularly sinister drawing, Masonry Enclosure: Project for a Doorway, 1976, Aycock limns a doorway twenty-four feet off the ground leading to a series of steps incrementally increasing in height, ending in a vertical shaft some sixty feet tall that is impossible to climb down (the steps are too steep). Or, take her 1984 drawing of a cramped seven-story, hundred-room structure replete with white picket fences as wraparound balustrades. Its winding title, The Hundred Small Rooms (Another Tower of Babel) on the Eve of the Industrial Revolution (A Pictorial Re-creation of the Raising of an Egyptian Obelisk in the Piazza di San Pietro, Rome 1586) with Turning, Cranking… evokes epochs that are centuries apart but both marked by cultural upheaval, transformation, and decimation, which Aycock collapses into an image of a maddening fun house. This is architecture as commentary on the human condition. In focusing on Aycock’s pre-1984 drawings (her later drawings are shown in the second part of the exhibition on view at the Parrish Art Museum), this timely retrospective suggests how we might confront the complexity of a built world, without necessarily building a thing.