Ed Mayer

Bell Gallery, Brown University

Ed Mayer makes precise structures. No, that’s not quite right—Mayer’s structures are precise, piles of wooden laths, criss-crossed log-cabin fashion. In the six major works exhibited recently along with several drawings and prints, it became apparent that the artist does not so much impart mathematical clarity to his materials as draw that accuracy from their physical limits.

In a work like Glide, 1978, we are acutely aware of the delicacy of Mayer’s method, of fine boundaries traced between the friction of the nubby wood surface, the weight of the cross strips and the pitch of each upright. Together they constitute a kind of natural formula, giving the piece its eventual contour—in this case an undulating, lively arch with voussoirs and key of lath not stone.

Although the artist denies historical and art-image referents such as this, many leap to mind as we approach the differently shaped pieces—one might be an ancient beehive hut, another an industrial sieve, still another a bridge or a tower. As shape the metaphors work but as we get closer, the contoured exteriors seem less primary as we perceive their screened quality, filtering light, and encompassing a depth and richness of texture that mere outer planes can never possess. Mayer gives us exterior shape and inner volume, both connected by his lath struts.

While his drawings read as flat surface patterns, almost self-consciously related to the wooden sculptures, the actual constructions are not really patterns at all. They are more organic than this, as if they had a life of their own, existing before esthetic intervention, prior to intellectual interference. The sculptures are in fact systemic. There are no adhesives, no nails, only the wood itself determining final form. These are self-sufficient organisms that act as units—if a viewer pulls part of a structure, a great, gentle, creaky springing allows the whole to withstand external pressure. The completed shapes can even be moved across a floor intact, shifting slightly but maintaining their presence through the physical forces of friction and inertia. The works are maintained by these forces—what the artist initiates, the physical limits of his chosen elements complete.

While Mayer does disdain imagery parallels, he is intrigued by similar everyday structures—woodpiles, hayricks and others where material and framework are integrated. Perhaps the best metaphor for these lath pieces would be from botany, anatomy or biology—the veining in a plant leaf, crystalline structures that grow in geometric accumulations or skeletons that permit definite yet flexible form. Mayer’s work seems open-ended, his means arrived at through a process that reveals itself, free from external demands.

Ronald J. Onorato