Critics’ Picks

View of “Patricia L. Boyd,” 2019–20.

View of “Patricia L. Boyd,” 2019–20.

New York

Patricia L. Boyd

Front Desk Apparatus
29 East 37th Street 2B
November 13, 2019–January 17, 2020

With an elegantly understated semiotics of the garden, Patricia L. Boyd’s exhibition here foregrounds the labors and failures of maintenance. In Unearthed, 2019, an array of weeds rest on a sheet of canvas; the artist’s mother snuck the flora, pruned from her garden, through US customs by dissembling them between yellow card stock and photographs of sundry English gardens she had visited. These pictures now grace the gallery’s walls, as does the video Sweepings, 2019, in which neglected to-do lists loop in a ceaseless tide: chicken liver / dust buster / more socks / emails / kevin’s memorial? (flowers) / book dentist.

The artist excised a pair of bookshelves that flanked the gallery’s fireplace, revealing collections of dust—which Boyd designated an artwork, titled November 4, 2019—in the otherwise immaculate Midtown brownstone. Boyd’s invocation of domestic dirt and motherly care summons Mierle Laderman Ukeles’s 1969 “Maintenance Art Manifesto,” which argues that development labor, imbued as it is with modernist ideals of progress, invention, and individual genius, is sustained by the invisible toil of maintenance or, per Ukeles, “[keeping] the dust off.” Executed successfully, such efforts go unnoticed, for the aim of cleaning, conserving, weeding, etc., is to make it appear as if nothing has happened. Yet, here, the custodians’ unwitting removal of the piece during a routine cleaning brings attention not only to their labor, but to their failure as conservators of art as well.

Just as the concept of a weed is a fiction—it is merely a category applied to undesirable plants—in this show the distinctions between care and neglect, renewal and decay, become confused and exposed as cyclical. The word pollen shares its roots with the Latin pulvis, or dust. And remember the painter Max Ferber in W. G. Sebald’s novel The Emigrants (1992), for whom the continuously falling motes in his studio were both the “most palpable proof of his failure” and what he “loved more than anything else in the world.”