Critics’ Picks

Maria Lai, Sheet, 1989, thread on fabric, 56 x 90 1/2".


Maria Lai

Galerie Stadtpark
December 19–February 27

The late Sardinian artist Maria Lai’s works demonstrate the freedom from dogma that artists at the periphery can enjoy. Though her most creative period—the early 1970s to the late 1980s—coincided with the advent of postmodernism, her practice was firmly anchored in a modernist language. However, while the ideal modern artist was figured as a heroic innovator, Lai was a synthesizer of methodologies, liberally taking elements from Arte Povera, Conceptual art, Minimalism, and fiber art, or works by painters such as Cy Twombly and Agnes Martin. These diverse vocabularies constitute Lai’s highly original hybrid language.

This concise exhibition, curated by David Komary, presents six relatively small works from Lai’s vast output, functioning as a focused sample of her oeuvre. These pieces highlight her idiosyncratic inquiry into writing and cartography, two dominant concerns of the postwar avant-garde. Geography, 1979, for instance, shows a canvas sewn with threads to form a pattern that resembles a map with written commentary. It does not depict any particular location, though, and on closer inspection the text turns out to be an abstract design of illegible lines that take after the Western writing system. The characters on both Pages, 1982, and Sheet, 1989, are also indecipherable patterns organized so as to simulate pages of a book. These are abstractions of already abstract systems.

Despite their elegant beauty, these works are notably provocative. By producing objects that merely appear as text or map, as though to imply their look is enough regardless of their content, Lai points out the aestheticization of language and other systems of representation brought about by a conceptual turn in art, while challenging Conceptualist orthodoxy.