New York

Alice Aycock

John Weber Gallery

The more I try to figure out what Alice Aycock is up to the more frustrated I become. Her work seems filled with blind alleys and false leads, and, for me at least, it defies all attempts to get close to it. This, of course, may be precisely the effect Aycock is after, and if to frustrate, insult, irritate, and anger are her intentions—and there is some reason to believe they are—then she succeeds with me. That her work elicits such negative emotions, however, is not necessarily bad. Art that elicits any emotion is rare, and the best art is often like a slap across the face.

Pulling from 6,000 years of history, Aycock creates myths and then draws up architectural plans for buildings, complexes and cities that might almost function as stage sets for her dramas; sometimes she builds a few of the buildings. In her latest show, she exhibited two semiarchitectural wood constructions; plans, elevations and isometric drawings for three unbuilt citylike complexes; and photographs of two constructions (a maze and a 30-inch-high building with a seven-ton dirt roof) built in 1972 and 1973. Each of the unbuilt complexes was accompanied by a pair of statements, one “true” and one “false.” The true statement described the complex factually, while the false one described a myth or series of events which might occur in it.

Any real understanding of Aycock’s work requires a familiarity with her sources: readings from Robbe-Grillet, Bachelard, Calvino, et al.; medieval cities, ancient Greek and Roman cities, pre-Columbian cities and temples, the City of the Dead outside Cairo, as well as all the mythologies created by the societies inhabiting these cities. This is only a partial list, but it gives some idea of her interests. Since I have only a nodding acquaintance with many of these sources and a total ignorance of others, I find it difficult to say how well she’s reinterpreted them or what her assemblage of them finally means.

What the assemblage finally leads to, however, is Aycock’s myths, buildings, and complexes. The myths relating to each complex were represented by texts on the wall. They were frequently beautiful and poetic and just as frequently obscure and confusing, and I had the feeling that every other phrase referred to a different source. It was a little like reading The Waste Land for the first time—without Eliot’s footnotes. As a matter of fact, Aycock’s text for a complex entitled I Have Tried to Imagine the Kind of City You and I Could Live in as King and Queen contained three footnoted quotations—but with the footnotes themselves intentionally omitted.

The bothersome thing about Aycock’s work is not that it’s obscure, but that it often seems preciously and unnecessarily so. There is a genuine mystery about her constructions, arising out of their oddness, that makes them unique and fascinating, but its quality isn’t dependent on or enhanced by these tricks.

Aycock’s complexes are curious and frustrating places. The City of the Walls is surrounded and crisscrossed by a double wall with a three-foot-wide passageway inside it. One could walk between the walls but never gain access to the interior courtyards, so that, as Aycock says, one is “inside the city walls but never actually inside the city itself.” In I Have Tried to Imagine. . . ., there is a seven-story building called The Hundred Small Rooms, which contains 54 cubiclelike rooms with oppressive 4’ 6” ceilings—the same ceiling height used in the passageways in the Pyramids. Another of the complex’s buildings, The Nymphaeum, is a small house placed high on a concrete shaft; a short ladder leads through a hole in the floor down into thin air (not unlike the misleading footnotes, which also lead nowhere). The net effect of these functionless, illogical and oddly proportioned buildings is to make one uncomfortably aware of very unpleasant spaces.

Aycock is incorporating an enormous amount of intellectual and historical material into her work. My one real criticism is that at this point she may have more material than she knows what to do with and that much of it seems unassimilated. In the end, this may be a minor criticism because she almost certainly will eventually assimilate it and discard whatever is extraneous. And in the meantime, better too much than too little.

Jeffrey Keeffe