New York

Barbara Schwartz

Willard Gallery

Barbara Schwartz crafts wall reliefs by filling in chicken-wire forms with plaster and painting them with casein. I used to think her former work resembled carpets; they appeared to be paintings fattened out with plaster decorated with half-circle forms. With these new works the feminist meaning is clearer. They are all composed of two-part mirror-image forms with rounded, protruding centers and mostly thinning, elongated tops and bottoms. These generalized forms are not only organic, they are humanized. They are colored with hot, dry pigment, layer after layer, to produce a complex visual texture on the surface. This layering reveals an accumulation of detail which has nothing to do with the simplicity of the forms. The best works here take on dual symbolic identities as sexual organs and stylized deer or antelope heads. And the artist is not shrinking away from such associations.

Approaching a work like Affinbandi II from one side, it appears to be like a shield. As you move around it, the dark inside appears and the form almost looks like the rear lights on an old Cadillac. The really striking thing is how totemic the forms are, how thin and fragile they can be from one angle, and how solid and wide they are from another. Their cultural identity is chameleonlike—they are presences which can slip in and out of reference at will. This contributes to an almost anthropological complexity before reflecting art-world strategies.

The myriad of references are not yet sorted out, and the works here remain highly mixed metaphors. But it is difficult to complain about work which has too many overtones when we are so used to completely self-referential painting and sculpture. If Schwartz is going to give us her version of Oldenburg and Benglis as well as allusions to African sculpture and woman-identified imagery, I don’t think we have anything to lose by it. The only worry is that we may, out of habit, read things into the work which say more about the critical predilection for source mongering than coping with the work itself.

Jeff Perrone