New York

Maureen Connor

Acquavella Contemporary Art

Maureen Connor divided “Linens” into two parts: fabric used metaphorically and fabric used literally. There is consistent comparison of unlike things—of linen organdy (starched, pleated, and shaped by folding, basting, or pinning) to a cockscomb, or a rose, or a waterfall. Not surprisingly, this sort of allusiveness engenders response in kind—simile. Witness the type of critical reaction Connor’s show has prompted: it’s like wandering into a house whose inhabitants have gone away and covered up the furniture; it looks like the old-fashioned linen displays once popular in department stores; creampuffs are mentioned; and so on—all apt and descriptive, all similes. One might continue in this vein: these clever confections dot the space like sheets of tissue paper flung about in the rush to get at a delightful present. One work, Ace Wave, a complicated version of the napkin that stands on your plate trails off like a sheaf of wheat, the train of a gown or a D.A. haircut circa late ’50s. All of the pieces recall last-minute adjustments by aunts and mothers with magic fingers and glittering, pin-filled mouths. After a few of these, the sense sets in that a little bit of such phraseology goes a long way. Mind you, the satiety of these rooms is not the effect of seeing the work, only of writing about it. Its suggestiveness offers an embarassment of linguistic riches that’s as unhealthy as a high cholesterol diet. To say that among the associations profligately spun off by these sculptures are several “professional” ones, does nothing to change this. O’Keeffe’s Black Iris or Red Poppy, indeed any of her flowers, may consistently be called upon. Cockscomb may even be a reply to O’Keeffe’s Closed Clamshell. Column A, an eight-foot twist of organdy, inevitably bumps against Tatlin’s tower. However, as with any attempt to sculpt the White House in butter, the result may be ironic, but the intention, generally, is not.

The literal work promises a tonic. If the works discussed so far suggest that fabric is like something else, these works claim that fabric is only like itself. There’s no shaping or sculpting here. Instead, the pressed folds and ironed-in pleats become the focus. They are elaborated on, but never transcended or abandoned. After investigating pattern, perhaps echoing the woof and warp of all fabric, Connor’s cloth rectangles just reiterate the properties of starched linen organdy: its weightiness when hung; its degree of sheerness, and the quality of its drape or “fall” (in samples that partially cover two tables, and in two swaths that curtain the windows). But, after all, this room is allusive too, which may be the artist’s point. What at first looks like pure formalism cannot shake itself free of one constant implication. Folding and pressing are the activities of human beings, and, furthermore, not usually of artists, but of workers. Starching and ironing make for beauty, but it’s impossible to regard that beauty without thinking of the human labor it entailed. It’s as much of a distortion to talk about this room as an example of art for art’s sake as it is unfair to see it as an encomium on work for work’s sake. What has been neatly demonstrated, using formalism’s own vocabulary, is that there can be no such thing as simple formalism. We’re back to the mothers and aunts, back to metaphor. This room does, with its gossamer complications, look as though it had been custom-cobwebbed by Arachne, that symbol of drudgery transformed by skill.

It has always seemed to me that a work is engaging to the degree that it resists being “recouped,” explained. Both these rooms betray the language of criticism, first by inviting it to be garrulous, then by tempting it to be overly laconic. While the first room champions the superiority of seeing over saying, the second, more reductive, argues against the existence of a retinal art that is unfettered by cultural references. Opticality is by definition the province of the visual arts, but perception is its larger province. Connor’s “Linens” knew that though perception is sensual, it is also, as Merleau-Ponty has pointed out, dependent on a totality of experience, on what has been called “our thrownness into the world.”

Jeanne Silverthorne