PRINT September 1977

Alice Aycock: Mystery Under Construction

ALICE AYCOCK’S SCULPTURE IS remarkable for its power to make architectural and sculptural volumes and masses express inner states. Her moral and esthetic presuppositions are closely tied to her own sense of our age as one of imbalance, anxiety and uncertainty. Here I will emphasize the cultural and personal sources of Aycock’s vision, particularly as evidenced by two substantial recent works.

Aycock makes sculpture in a natural setting, as if participating in nature. Yet in drawing on her own unconscious fears or aggressions, her personal psychology, she makes such works modes of propitiating, so to speak, the supernatural. She calls upon the religious architecture of past civilizations—particularly that of Pre-Columbian and Pueblo Indian cultures—for part of her inspiration, together with her own individual past. Aycock’s works have a consequent ritualistic and “pre-historical” quality, functioning as physical objects from which metaphysical power emanates.

Meeting such “modern” anxiety head on, most of Aycock’s work demands physical response, often responses of an ambiguous, unpleasant and uncertain nature. Most frequently she dramatizes this view by hindering the body’s freedom, creating spaces that are precarious, disproportionate—spaces that make one aware of how physical confinement limits one’s free activity. In Wooden Shacks on Stilts with Platform, 1976 (Hartford Art School), Aycock combines wooden elements that differ radically in scale, forcing these disjunct parts to coexist in a strange, skeletal kind of tree-house dwelling. Standard wooden beams, intended essentially as constructive elements in the creation of solid edifices, instead constitute a structure devoid of both wholeness and rationality. Recently, Aycock says, she has been tormented by the feeling that crucial qualities in people and situations are “inaccessible” to her. Both the Wooden Shacks and Wooden Posts Surrounded by Fire Pits, also of 1976 (Nassau County Museum of Fine Arts, Roslyn, N.Y.), dramatize this feeling of inaccessibility and are, in the artist’s words, “intended to frustrate.”

While earlier works such as Simple Network, 1975, and Circular Building, 1976, concretized fears of burial and death in a specific way, Wooden Shacks and Wooden Posts refer more obliquely to death ceremonials. All, however, show Aycock’s capacity to endow physical objects with metaphysical and even ritual power. The works are theatres for the psyche as well as the body. Aycock has written:

Because the archeological sites I have visited are like empty theatres for past events, I try to fabricate dramas for my buildings, to fill them with events that never happened, to allude to function, a function they never had.

Thus Wooden Posts, dramatic enough because of its siting and its form of action, presents a decidedly sexual-psychological theatre. Isolated on an incline, 12 circular fire pits surround a circular clump of 160 wooden posts. Aycock prepares us for the central event with a seductive warmth that is then immediately negated on entering the mazelike circle, where the very center can never be reached. Although the configuration of Wooden Posts itself depends entirely on the circle—a definitively completed form—the action that the spectator-participant must act out is one of frustration or incompletion. This isolation of the individual’s body-consciousness, which induces extreme states of feeling, is one of the most romantic features of Aycock’s art.

In each work of Aycock’s the dramatic structure is different. Wooden Posts opposes forms of completion to the participant’s own frustration, while in Wooden Shacks both the sculpture and the participant’s experience of it function as threatening, discontinuous, disarticulated. Wooden Shacks, which is 23 1/2 feet high, is composed of an A-frame (6 ft. sq., 6 ft. high) on top of a trapezoidal platform. The platform, in turn supported on slender wooden legs, is approached by two ladders, with a third ladder leading to a (separate) small shed. There is a threatening empty space between the two wooden footholds on the platform.

As a whole the piece suggests a strange Gothic edifice, not ruined but abandoned in a state of incompletion. Like Wooden Posts it extends an invitation to approach a point—this time in the air—which in fact cannot be reached. Whereas the experience offered by Wooden Posts was a slow sensuous rhythm of finding and not finding the center, Wood Shacks, a loose, asymmetrical aggregation of diagonal and triangular forms, is all frenetic angles and energy. There is truly no center. While the piece seems to ascend, rising toward heaven, the primitive feelings it induces—fears of falling, of entrapment on overly small or unstable platforms—reinforce one’s awareness of bodily and limited being.

Most personally, Wooden Shacks is, in the sculptor’s words, an “attic” piece—relating to traumatic childhood experiences in an attic. Aycock recalls the frightening autobiographical source that inspired her “attic” works as follows:

About 15 years ago I visited the house in which my great-great-grandparents Benjamin and Serena lived, and where my great-grandfather Francis was born. It was a small, wood frame house in North Carolina. I climbed up alone into the attic where they slept and stood under the rafters. In the yard was the family cemetery . . . Years later, I dreamt that my brother Billy came for me and took me to that same wooden house set into the hills of Greece like a tholos tomb. I climbed the stairs again and behind a screen, a young child, whose face I could not see, lay dead.

For Wooden Shacks Aycock referred to a bizarre and complex variety of sources. She sees this Hartford work as a labyrinth or maze work—a “labyrinth in the air,” and a source for Wooden Shacks was a memory of the simple wooden A-frame dwellings on a hog farm in the American South, miniature shacks with an “unfinished” quality which for Aycock has again a romantic feeling—that of life reduced to rural simplicity. Most important, however, must have been a vast and menacing temple in Santa Cecilia, Mexico, which related to experiencing the terror or heights. What Aycock has written of Pre-Columbian temples surely equally evokes her own sculpture:

It is in part the neurotic quality of Pre-Columbian art which I respond to. It is obsessive, brutal, angry, extravagant, aggressive, fearful. Motivated by an incredible need to pacify the universe, to eliminate uncertainty . . .

Like George Trakas, Aycock often puts into her work elements which are at once functional and symbolic of an idea. In Wooden Shacks this applies to the ladders and the shed. As one looks at Wooden Shacks from one angle, there appear three ways to ascend—the three ladders. The two ladders leading up 10 feet to an altarlike platform extend an apparent invitation to ascend upward to the A-frame above. However, the ladders reach only to the platform, not to the A-frame itself, and the platform is really a momentary and unstable point of reference: the “self” and the space surrounding it are here modified by the skeletal and unfinished quality of the work as a whole. The shed, reached by the third ladder, is actually the only semi-enclosed space in the work, but being only 3 feet wide it is less a refuge than a prisonlike niche.

This sculpture is asymmetrical and rather “weightless,” and it projects a precarious mood. Aycock’s use of asymmetry and deliberate disproportion here relates to her statement “I’m thinking of a building where the relation between the roof and the underlying space is disproportionate—a building that is all roof.” In Wooden Shacks the disproportion between extreme height and inadequate stability creates a feeling of danger. The structure is effectively “roofed” only by the sky, where nature is an active protagonist.

A deliberately unfinished structure, Wooden Shacks suggests some eerie abandoned construction site. With the ladders and the shed Aycock stresses the presence of outlying elements. And this peripheral aspect lends a ritualistic and symbolic quality to the platform and the ladders. The A-frame being inaccessible and the shed uncomfortable, these ladders are more symbolic than functional, analogous to the steep ritual staircases of Pre-Columbian architecture: “These staircases are intended to establish a system of correspondences between the position of the priest as he climbs and the position of the sun as it moves across the sky.” Wooden Shacks is not a single-image work, for essentially two views predominate. From the side, one is conscious of unrelated elements such as shed, ladders and platform. Seen frontally, the piece is still asymmetrical, due to the shed’s placement to the right, but from this view one image is dominant—that of the A-frame, the highest point, which suggests a Gothic spire.

These works objectify a vast range of memories, ideas and feelings, which gives each piece a kind of ritualistic dimension. Aycock is remarkable in her access to emotion, and her insistence on endowing art with the mystery and sacred fear it had in less secular times.

Margaret Sheffield is the New York correspondent for Studio International.