New York

Alice Aycock

112 Greene Street

Alice Aycock has done some Mannerist carpentering in a work she calls The True and the False Project Entitled “The World Is So Full of a Number of Things.” It is a subtly eccentric pastiche of architectural elements based on the catacombs of St. Sebastian, the Thermae of Titus (after a Piranesi engraving), the circular building in Bosch’s The Temptation of St. Anthony, among other art historical sources. Her recipe aside, it does on the whole look rather like an Escher castle or some erratically proportioned fortification lifted from a Gothic tapestry. On its own terms, it is an outstandingly enigmatic work.

Constructed of sheetrock and wood, three separate components, reaching in places a height of 15 feet, press in on the center of the gallery, grouped around its Corinthian columns, so that they too are activated as part of the design. Like the best Minimalist sculpture of the ’60s, the actual scale and dimensions of the work are difficult to grasp perceptually. From one perspective the structure seems to crowd its space; from another some parts look disproportionately diminished in size. A cool sense of paradox governs the way Aycock has subverted architectural function, generating numerous contradictions of expectation and experience. A ladder, for example, is canted against an ascending tier of stairs built along the top of a curvilinear parapet. The rungs on the ladder go only as high as the first step of the stairs, which themselves lead only to the parapet’s precipitous edge. And this ladder, like another tilted against a “window” cut out of the facade under the stairs, is most peculiarly designed: rather than vertically parallel, the side beams incline to an apex, making the ladders seem rather like the vanishing orthogonals of tracks in perspective. Indeed, they are more convincing visually as illusions of depth than pragmatically as instruments of ascent. Aycock’s intention throughout the work seems to be to exacerbate ambiguities of cognition and perception, throwing her structure as a wedge between our understanding of function and acceptance of appearance.

If architecture is “frozen music,” the blueprint for Alice Aycock’s The True and the False Project . . . would undoubtedly read as an atonal score. Her formal methods seem not far removed from serial composition: punning inversions, permutations, and reversals in the relationships of a limited range of repeated structural elements create a gamey, perplexing spatial situation. To tabulate for a moment: in the circular parapet section a ladder leads to stairs and a ladder leads to an aperture, while in an adjoining rectangular component an aperture leads to stairs and an aperture leads to a ladder (not visible in the photograph); then, the outer (upper) stairs countervail against the inner (lower) stairs, and both lead nowhere—one ascending to the gallery ceiling, the other ascending to the ceiling of a cubbyhole. Clearly, the logic of Aycock’s project is determinedly ironic. The playful rigor of its spatial syntax (irrespective of any human contingency) generates the semantic preposterousness of the structure itself. The work is something of a satiric epitaph on the whole tradition of formalism, in sculpture as well as architecture—perhaps the dream of the ghost in the “machine for living”?

But one need not be a systems analyst or an absurdist to appreciate Aycock’s intentions and wit. The work menaces the imagination in quite a more direct way. Like something of an architectural shaggy dog story, The True and the False Project seduces and frustrates, and that’s the joke. As bystander becomes trespasser the structure entraps and deceives with any number of culs-de-sac—crawl spaces, claustrophobic compartments, cramped corners, narrow ledges. Some visitors to the gallery initially responded to the installation with the enthusiasm of children stumbling upon a playground. While others were cautiously wary, these tended to assail it as though the ladders and stairways invited a siege. Soon, however, their expressions betrayed consternation and mistrust as they found themselves walking planks, so to speak—crushed against unexpected ceilings, bruising shins entering the apertures, squeezed on the upper rungs of triangular ladders, or wedged in the awkward passages between the columns and walls. One becomes curiously more aware of the spatial logic of one’s own body and movements as they are constricted and contradicted by wholly other structural suppositions of an architecture not adapted to human functions and needs. As a kind of architectural fiction Alice Aycock’s The True and the False Project . . . becomes increasingly unfathomable, surprising, and enlightening with repeated physical or analytical assaults. Its matter-of-factly naked surface—unpainted sheetrock, plastered seams, raw construction scars—makes the mystery of its spaces all the more disarming.

Richard Lorber