New York

Lydia Hunn

Nexus Projects Gallery

Could there be such a thing as “New Image Sculpture”? Richard Marshall’s catalogue for the 1979 Whitney show, to rephrase it somewhat, advertised Imagist painting as representation under new management: realism pensioned off; abstraction hired as consultant. True to inflated times and a pinched economy, the new image has been cut back, pruned of all but the most essential identifying characteristics, yet it remains “emotive,” psychological and highly suggestive if sometimes mysterious. Consider, in this light, the “Flashers” of Rosemarie Castoro, the cradles and ladders of Harmony Hammond, the fleeing figure of Judy Pfaff—all schematized references to real world entities, all strongly allusive, often anthropomorphic. Or zoomorphic. If Susan Rothenberg’s horses can be New Image, why not Deborah Butterfield’s? NIP members Lois Lane’s and Denise Green’s fanned forms are emblematic, so what does that make Barbara Zucker’s cock-of-the-walk constructions? Both Green and Jennifer Bartlett simplify architectural shapes; so do any number of sculptors.

Most of these sculptures are discrete, “isolated and removed from associative backgrounds” (as Marshall describes the figure/ground disjunction on many New Image canvases), which is to say they are not site-specific. Although Butterfield’s horses are wrapped in the dandruff of their environment, and Pinchas Cohen Gan’s small detached figures are leeched by fragments of corners, walls, shelves, floors, these are wrenchings out of context, free-floating impieties.

Maybe Joel Shapiro started it all, maybe not, but the imagery of Lydia Hunn (a New Image sculptor if ever there was one), at least, owes a debt to him. Take houses, for example. She’s done them (who hasn’t?), but she may be one of the few artists who can still “do” houses in a way that surprises. A house is never a home in Hunn’s 1979 cardboard “House Trap” series; rather, set in a ring, it is the maw of the trap, a piece of cheese, a victim. Always black, always ringed, this house of Saturn offers the fittingly saturnine notion of the family demesne (or is it demise?) as planet, a world locked in grim immutable orbit. On the wall, as relief, tilting forward out of its circle, the stylized facade becomes a spearhead, an arrow, a hostile missile of some sort. On the floor, skeletal in black bars, lurching crazily, it reminds one of the crooked man who perforce had a crooked house, suggesting its own doggerel of parsimony, dishonesty, and decrepitude. With all internal structure reduced to a single staircase, arson can’t be ruled out either.

Stairs are important to Hunn. In a recent work, three miniature pink ladders lean up against three curtains cascading down a wall to collect in pools on the floor. The accompanying words, “My father’s hats in tidy rows give me great pleasure,” juxtaposed with the thrice reiterated ideogram for elopement (a ladder against a window) collate into a classic Oedipal romance, with its attendant irresolution. Although the order of the father becomes the order of the universe, since his compulsiveness is mirrored in the segmentation of the ladder which leads to the wholism of the night sky or all-over-white-on-black pattern of the fabric, the stairway to heaven remains blocked, literally curtained off.

Indeterminate narrative is an option of the new imagery, and Hunn’s tale of the double bind of family life is continued in Hard/Soft, the Nexus exhibit of performance props presented here as sculpture. Now inside with the furniture, appliances, and human occupants, Hunn expands the plot. The regimentation of people through the family is extended to the regimentation of nature through mechanization. Biological reproduction produces automatons: Mom or “womom,” if you will, is a rag doll hanging crucified on a clothesline, ready to be jerked about by a pulley. Combining endless clichés of a martyred existence, Mom is all strung out, or better, like a wet rag, all wrung out, which is the point of view that separates this piece from Lois Lane’s clothesline paintings. Likewise, inorganic recycling—matter, remember, can be neither created nor destroyed—produces machines. Multicolored plywood toasters on the floor are labelled this way: “As rock is turned into sand/So minerals become millions of toasters.” The colonists believed that the devil hid in corners and so we understand their penchant for corner cupboards as a kind of exorcism. Hunn’s corner TV set is probably the only one in existence. Ghosts may be a persistent problem of television reception, but this is a matter of fighting the devil (mechanization) with his own strongest weapon. There are more houses here of corrugated box material, and an armchair shaped like Shapiro’s, but brushy green with antimacassars; these and all the other items have the abbreviated, pared-down look of trapped creatures who have gnawed off their own limbs—streamlined for escape.

Jeanne Silverthorne