New York

Mary Miss

Rosa Esman Gallery

Much of Mary Miss’s recent work is based on spatial progressions, which provide her with a method of staking out and defining sculptural territory. A new piece shown here recently, as well as a film of a second entitled Cut-Off, executed in Flint, Michigan, in the fall of 1974, enlarge upon her previous investigations with considerable success.

Entering a rather small gallery the viewer is confronted with a crude, fence-like structure made of painted plank, propped up with 2 x 4s. Since it’s a bit higher than eye level, it can’t be seen over, and the first impression is of a rather formidable barricade that crowds and blocks one’s presence. At the end farthest from the door the piece reveals its true identity—a three-stage corridor with the second and third sections each a step higher and a foot or so narrower than the preceding one. As the eye travels through the piece, the sense of distance is heightened by the exaggeration of normal perspectival recession produced by the actual physical narrowing. The three interior areas are further demarcated by sheets of metal which serve as flooring. Once you overcome the surprise of finding that the work has an interior, its premise is plain, uncomplicated, eliciting the pleasure of a peep-show Easter egg. Isolated from its surroundings by the nature of its structure, the self-contained vista it offers becomes credible on its own terms. Fortunately, it also alerts one to the climax of the Flint piece, shown in a ten-minute film.

The camera scans a bleak, post-season hayfield, quickly noting the terrain, and stops at a clump of pine trees. A man props up a square sheet of plywood about 20 yards from the trees, stands a roll of snow fence on end, and begins to dig a narrow ditch alongside, pitching the dirt into the cylinder formed by the fencing. As he passes beyond the roll he moves the plywood forward, sets up a second roll, and continues the process. A soundtrack records the monotonous crunching of his digging.

When he is several rolls along a second digger begins, systematically widening and deepening the ditch and adding his dirt to the snow fence containers. When the second man reaches the point where the first man was when the second one started, a third joins in at the beginning, widening and deepening the ditch still another notch. The digging is precise, so the walls of the ditch are straight and the bottom is level; the progress of each digger can be clearly read. The soundtrack crunches on. As the third man reaches the point that signaled the second man’s start, the first man arrives at the trees and finishes digging, climbs out of the ditch, takes the plywood square and disappears into the underbrush.

At this point the ditch represents a three-stage progression, but were it not for the cues provided by the gallery piece, the moment would be easy to miss, since the remaining diggers continue to shovel away until both reach the end, obliterating the progression by continuing the very simple, logical process to its inevitable outcome. We are left with a neatly dug ditch of uniform width and depth, with the snow fence cylinders marking its edge. The camera scans along the fence and the ditch, recedes for a quick overall view, roves briefly around for a final look at the field, and the film ends. The parting shot of the piece is a testimony to its simultaneous destruction and completion.

Miss has said that the object of her work is to isolate and explore what she calls “extremely clear situations.” Cut-Off enlarges her scope by adding a temporal dimension, disrupting accustomed habits of visual perception by removing the luxury of prolonged experience. The progress of the work cannot be halted for appreciation of its climax, which is intensified by the simultaneous apprehension of its denouement.

The use of film allows the artist a further temporal control over the viewer by permitting the monitoring and direction of our focus and limiting our absorption of information which she considers gratuitous. For instance, no overall shot of the completed work lasted long enough to count exactly how many rolls of snow fence there were. Evidently Miss did not feel that the clarity of the situation was contingent upon that knowledge. After two futile attempts at counting, I realized she was right.

Nancy Foote