New York

Mary Miss

Protetch-McNeil Gallery

Mary Miss’ latest exhibition was a spartan but cogent presentation of 18 years of growth. Effectively and effortlessly combining a conventional installation of isolated sculptural work with an architectural reinterpretation of a gallery space, Miss created an environment that accommodated her past and current production, exposing both linkages and lapses. There is a need to summarize artistic careers, but in doing so, there is a troubling tendency to invent relationships and transitions, to manipulate cycles and passages so that they appear orderly. It would be impossible to categorize with any confidence the development of this inventive artist. She has investigated extensively by permitting the contingencies of location and context, and the riddles of experience and perception, to inform all her work.

Rather than documenting Miss’ temporary and permanent outdoor pieces through drawings and photographs, the exhibition focused on her interior works. Whereas the outdoor pieces explore the coaction of environment and construction in a scale that encourages an active, physical encounter, the interior work is more psychological, questioning the relationship of eye and mind in experience. Miss has always sought the foundations of perception through simple, cryptic means. Glass, 1967, is simply a piece of glass resting on small gray arches. Strings are threaded through seven small holes in the glass, and their weighted ends rest haphazardly on the floor. There is great activity in this very still piece, suggesting a submerged view of the world and speculation on how we anchor ourselves and our perceptions. In Stake Fence, 1970, a new scale is introduced, with new permutations: a 21-foot-long elevated rail supports crisscrossing stakes which seem ready to slip and slide. Glass transforms moments of action into an isolated object, while Stake Fence seems a fragment selected from an occurrence of indeterminate mythic scale.

The exhibition included three works from 1984; placed on a diagonal axis through the gallery, they were the installation’s spine. These were the works that manipulated the space, and their color and content created drama and tension. Their relationships to each other are quite clear; their relationships to Miss’ earlier work are more obscure, and instigate wonder. Much of that earlier work explores objects in space, enclosures, and volumes; the new works are membranes and surfaces which circumscribe space and control our intervention. They are edges rather than nodes, not surfaces pulled taut and thin but works layered with implications about entry and egress, vision and obscurity, front and back. Screen is a three-panel aluminum piece painted flat black and punctured with large, abstract, yet oddly anthropomorphic cutouts (based, apparently, on Sir Edwin Lutyens’ plans for New Delhi), leaving a network of precise arteries as in stained-glass windows. The work defies its convention: it has no clear front or back, and while it confounds, it conceals nothing. It excites the imagination not by what cannot be seen or touched, but by the fragmented layers of its own dimensions as well as the changing activity around it.

Door Mask bisected the gallery. While doors like these must usually be entered to be experienced, one feels a psychological reluctance to push aside the swinging doors here. The piece is an analysis of proxemics and of the inhibitions instigated when an architectural element compels movement and then physically and psychologically impedes it. In subverting its own function, Door Mask heightens its esthetic content. The front of the piece is boldly and aggressively painted, while the other side is quiet and subdued. Each side absorbs the references of its position in space, and of the concept of the doorway, which inscribes types of space and function.

Wall Piece is an eye-shaped aperture in a wall, with four pivoting inscriptions of the eye form within the opening. The recesses and components are chromatically emphasized. Resting on the floor against the wall is a metallic silver hatch cover suggesting that this is an opportunity in perception but not a persistent phenomenon.

Miss’ earlier work used a spare monochromatic vocabulary which heightened the artist’s anonymity. Her new work not only introduces a forceful use of color, geometry, and pattern, but moves her role to a more assertive posture. We are not simply involved with our own perceptions and encounters, but with the psyche and passions of the artist. Miss is now investigating questions of function, and the complex relationship of use, esthetics, and decoration. When function is subverted, she asks, what, if anything, remains? Miss seems to believe that what remains is the power of poetics.

Patricia C. Phillips