New York

Alice Aycock

John Weber Gallery

Within a waist-high wooden fence three paths lead to a tilted circular enclosure, lashed to a central axis by a lever. As the willing participant crawls toward it through heavy, guillolinelike metal gates the drum rotates until a narrow opening is exposed. Inside he stands on a narrow wooden platform while the walls on either side trundle noisily past. After one revolution another gap is revealed. Trapped and frustrated, the victim finally arrives at the center. As he awaits his captor’s behest he may wonder who is operating this torture-device-cum-party-game. In literal terms, it is one of the gallery staff. Hypothetically, Alice Aycock proposes a complex of wheels and cranks, part of her long-term consideration of the roots of the Industrial Revolution. On a fictional plane the title, The Machine that Makes the World alludes to the series The Angels Continue Turning the Wheels of the Universe. Men, machines or angels do the turning, then. If medieval invention indicated a need for secularized transcendence, a will to escape the prison of the flesh, machinery was one way of disturbing those hierarchies by which man was defined. Flight was the ideal. Paradoxically, angels (a little higher in the system than man) and birds (a little lower) could already fly. Try as he might to harness this power, man failed; for him immobility and original sin seemed inextricably enmeshed.

“Don’t know nothing ’bout the Middle Ages,” runs one of Aycock’s songs. This is untrue, of course, but they emerge in her work as her Middle Ages; her stories are all one story, which is herself. “Self” in Aycock is fragmented and ironic, however, and she is determined not to provide works which are limited to a single mode of meaning. It has recently been suggested, for example, that “phenomenology” in sculpture is closely allied to fancy as Coleridge understood the term. In an installation such as How to Catch and Manufacture Ghosts she is intent on challenging this argument. Surrounded by spotlights, a three-part dais incorporates metal troughs of water and, on top, a steplike bench from which a gas-pipe leads to a nonfunctional array of wheels and spindles. A girl, sitting on the bench, uses a tray of liquid to blow large bubbles. At her feet a primitive battery made from a lemon has wires connected which twine around a glass jar containing a bird, placed in two concentric metal dishes of water. Metal stirrups hang from the apparatus, which resembles a popular science experiment or a stage prepared for some spectacular sideshow feat. The accompanying text, which explains how ghosts are summoned by dreaming, is a quotation from a schizophrenic. The atmosphere is expectant but also vacant and nervously fanciful. The machine will not work, yet the power of suggestion alone is sufficient. Somehow its nonsense corresponds to our nonsense. Can collective desire cause change of state, or is materialization and dematerialization a monopoly of God? Is madness and its consequent freedom from time and place the state medieval man so desired?

Aycock’s “art-object” is simultaneously drawing, sculpture and narrative; project, proposal and commentary; wish, lie and dream. Disparate levels of realism and content are temporarily aligned, not intended to fuse but instead to furnish a mutual critique. As architectural metaphor has given way to meditations on cosmology and the history of machines, medievalism—not as escape but as a detachable core of content, retaining an air of fantasy—has provided much of the impulse for Aycock’s organization of “realisms”; for at least a year it has seemed that her planes of meaning would resolve themselves into endlessly complicated allegorical patterns, like the Roman de la Rose. Aycock’s career has been an extended improvisation on unrelated topics, assembled willfully, then allowed to return quietly to their places after use, leaving behind integrity of imagination, ability to marshal themes, the power of digression, but never thin air, since a virtuoso mental performance has taken place. Her new Paradise Fiction drawing, an encyclopedic tour-de-force incorporating major cosmologies, is a unique and deliberate climax, the symphonic summary of major themes. For once harmony ousts disharmony, continuity overrides discontinuity and total recall replaces an erotic forgetting. Like the two installations, this drawing deals with creation, the spirit to be captured, the secret at the axletree of the world. And at the moment when Paradise is imaged at once, polyphonically, as maze, machine and prison, the uneasy formal truce is broken, paranoia enters and the mind is sent careening between madness and truth, and, for the first time, between extremes of good and evil.

Suddenly Alice Aycock’s art reveals a peculiarly American concern with the moral implications of the new. The flourish with which her major chord is shattered resembles a reductio ad absurdum of those “defensive operations” Harold Bloom observes in contemporary fictional endings: “either the work of negation, intellectually freeing us from some of the consequences of repression, or the labor of paranoia, reducing reality to a code.” Oedipa Maas, Pynchon’s doomed heroine, asked “Shall I project a world?” As the arrogance of her decision loomed and threatened, despair gave way to madness, madness to the possibility of annihilation. Haunted by her inability to distinguish good from evil, the real from the apparent, she underwent the kind of crisis Aycock’s Paradise Fiction presents. What became of Oedipa Maas is unknown. What will happen to Alice Aycock is also a matter of no small significance.

Stuart Morgan