New York

Patsy Norvell

A.I.R. Gallery

Patsy Norvell’s show at A. I. R. had two parts. The first included a number of enclosures ranging in diameter from 13 inches to ten feet. In the second, there was one parabolically shaped fence made of plexiglas rods and wire mesh. This work measures 20 feet at its deepest. Norvell’s art falls into three stages, roughly. From 1970 to 1973, she made wall pieces in which strips of paper, satin, vinyl and other materials were pleated and sewn together in rows. Next, from 1974 to 1975, she made wall pieces from hair. The best known of these consists of a series of curls scotch-taped in horizontal rows. Most of them, however, employed hair to form landscape images. Her latest works are floor pieces, for the most part. They are entitled variously “fences,” “walls,” “ellipses,” and “circles.” They not only vary in size, but are also made of a surprising variety of materials: branches, twigs, sculpta-mold (in a model for a rock wall), porcelain sticks, wooden sticks and rabbit bones. Some of these materials are left in their natural state after they are wired together. A few of the sticks, however, are colored in ways that give personal recapitulations of the color wheel—which is thus made to read as an enclosure itself.

In each stage of Norvell’s development, form is played off against material. In her pleated works, paper and vinyl appeared where one would expect only fabric. In her hair works, attention was drawn away from form to the peculiarity of hair-in-art. Now, with her enclosures made of materials that are odd (rabbit bones) or not very efficient as fencing materials (frail sticks and twigs), one gets the sense that the relationship of form and material is intended to generate private, possibly ritualistic, meanings.

Norvell doesn’t simply present enclosures: she presents the results of ceremonial acts of enclosure. Secular (i.e. artworld) equivalents of sanctifications seem to have taken place, thanks to the particular qualities of the materials she uses. What she hopes to gain, perhaps, with the qualities that predominate in her latest work, is an integrity denied to the usual sculptural materials: the natural is sacred, and natural materials can be made to set off sacred ground. These are dubious propositions, and Norvell may not subscribe to them. The parabolic fence that appeared in the second part of her exhibit employs, as I said, manufactured materials—wire mesh and plexiglas. The desire to sanctify a certain space was still evidenced by this work, I think, but the power to effect that result was shifted away from odd or ostentatiously natural materials to the enclosing form.

The air of ceremony and sanctification is brought down to earth somewhat in a wall piece, an ellipse made of 20 small photographic images showing a woman in different overcoats, her eyes covered by a superimposed black bar. The work is called Street Clothing Defense (NYC). Its meaning has something to do with the strategies of anonymity one uses to make one’s way through the urban milieu. The woman faces outward, so the interior of the ellipse gets a charge of privacy—but not a charge of the sacred. This quality is achieved in an illustrational, anecdotal manner. Illustration and anecdote are becoming more and more respectable in contemporary art. They are especially attractive when the alternative to them is—as in Norvell’s work—an attempt to estheticize fetishism.

––Carter Ratcliff