New York

Alison Wilding

Judith Fetterley has argued that we learn “to read like men.” This tendency is challenged by Alison Wilding, an English sculptor, who is able to shift her morphological vocabulary from the realm of the male gaze to the feminine. Using a wide range of materials (steel, brass, copper, bronze, rubber, wood, and stone), as well as various techniques (cutting, casting, carving, and chiseling), she makes work that embodies a rich re-visioning of the sculptural presentation of women.

Nature: Blue and Gold, 1984, subtly derails the viewer’s deeply implanted patterns of association. Through her combination of complementary materials and processes—ashwood and brass, carving and cutting—Wilding reveals layers of metaphors from within, rather than imposing established metaphorical constructs from without. The ash has been hewn into an ovoid, then rubbed with dark blue pigment and sealed with linseed oil, while the sheet of brass has been cut into an ovoid shape and slit partway up the middle, its surface pierced with rivets and burnished to a bright golden glow. The balance maintained between these two rhyming ovoids is suggestive. Does the brass sheet open, and the headlike ovoid emerge from it? Or is the brass sheet closing around the ash? If the sculpture suggests “beak” and “head,” then the myth of Leda and the Swan comes to mind. However, if we read “legs” and “head,” then the sculpture becomes a metaphor for birth. Is the wooden ovoid a head? a body? an egg? Is the glowing brass sheet emblematic of the sun? Zeus (in his incarnations as the Swan)? the haloed head of the Madonna? Nature: Blue and Gold supports a Möbius strip of speculations. Our inability to reach a conclusion is important. By introducing metaphors for the feminine into a highly accomplished abstract language, she undermines our tendency to assign an interpretation shaped by historical codes (i.e., male/Modernist assumptions). However, neither the exhibition nor the accompanying brochure aided Wilding in her cause. Two of the seven pieces were on the wall of the corridor outside the exhibition room, so it was easy to overlook them (something I did on my first visit to the exhibition). The essay by Beatrice Kernan, an assistant curator of drawings, is effusive and pseudo-formalist—the art-historical equivalent of purple prose—and, at its best, reprises the very assumptions that Wilding’s work refutes.

Wilding possesses an unerring ability to discover the various acculturated formations of reading imbedded within materials, processes, forms, and shapes. In her combinations of oak and steel (Into the Light, 1985), steel, bronze, and rubber (Slow Core, 1985–87), and linen and black walnut (Plunder, 1987), she is able both to recover layers of history and to explore sexual metaphors in ways that, instead of provoking viewers, engage them in dialogue. Rather than appropriating and collaging “found” forms and images together, which has become nearly a cliché of post-Modern practice (especially among male artists), she discovers the durability of her morphological forms by displacing them from their familiar contexts. Her work proposes that new meanings may accrue from such a reexamination.

Wilding’s command of materials and processes, her refusal to become stuck in a style, fulfills Ezra Pound’s Modernist credo: “Make It New.” The difference—and it is a major one—is that she is reading her self into a history (its symbiotic relationship of making and reading) dominated by males. In doing so, she aligns herself with an ongoing, alternative tradition that includes Eva Hesse, Louise Bourgeois, and Nancy Graves.

John Yau