New York

Mark Mennin

Victoria Munroe Gallery

Mark Mennin’s sculptures do not embrace the surrounding empty space in the manner of formalist abstract sculpture, in order to regain a measure of nonliteral illusionism. Rather, his static self-contained formats are developed as gridlike collages to create an almost archaeological frame of reference in which material fragments of color, surface, and image combine to recreate the illusion of abstraction and negative space.

Anchoring his sculpture idiom within the conventions of traditional architecture and statuary, Mennin’s work addresses the critical dialogue between sculptural and pictorial space by constructing three-dimensional allusions to painting without sacrificing the assured objectivity of sculptural mass and literalness. Archaism underscores his use of symmetrical formats derived from the wall relief, the totem, and the sacred altar; he uses such basic schemes to fulfill our conservative expectations, while freeing them to function as broken narrative assemblages in which he employs collage and random association to recreate a sense of strategic abstract illusionism that is endemic to painting. By evoking the idea of a spatial transition between painting and sculpture, Mennin implies a sense of double entendre which introduces a surreal effect, offsetting the symbolic portentousness inherent in his materials and architectonic forms with dematerializing illusionism.

The best examples are Mennin’s variations on the wall relief: tableaux representing the studio practice as existential, abstract statuary. In Epic Ascent, 1986–87, and Epic Descent, 1985–87, a spare, tilted iron frame illustrates the artist’s easel and benchlike shelf on which collage assemblages and still-life arrangements are displayed. Slabs of fractured, architectonically cut stone are selectively polished, carved, and incised to suggest shards of hidden surfaces, glyphic sporelike diagrams, masks, and other fragmented anatomical anomalies. In these Mennin brings the subtle color and texture of the manipulated stone into formal compositional play, creating sensuous passages that are intercepted at intervals by archaistic details. He does not strive for narrative coherence in presenting a mystery, employing montage in the service of more formalistic goals. One feels that if the images were to combine to describe a more coherent narrative the effect would be mawkish, as in the sentimental Selva,1987–88, perhaps the least successful piece in the show, in which a human visage stares out from behind bronze bars in a gesture of unredeemed pathos. In most of the “easel” pieces and in the best of those in altar format, such as Metamorphic Shelf, 1985–87, the visual components interrelate in a highly abstract manner, and Mennin’s use of the framing device to hold these works together contributes a sense of narrative enigma. Another of the altarpieces, Zulu Time, 1987–88, may be compared to the stone slab tables of the ancient Celts; the elements are few and appear defined by an obvious sense of ritual that is dramatized by the sculptural form of the table.

Natura Dorma (Nature sleeping, 1987–88) and Natura si Sveglia (Nature awakening, 1987–88) are variations on the altar format that clearly invoke images of painterly still life and do not dramatize occult associations as self-consciously as Zulu Time. The tabletop presentations of single rows of vase-shaped, oblong, and cylindrical forms, carved of porous, pale-hued travertine, bear a resemblance to Giorgio Morandi’s luminous abstractions. But in Mennin’s assemblages, substance prevails over light; the works’ illusionistic power is confined to the containers proper.

It is in his totemic pieces, which do not engage in the pictorial associations of the other works in the exhibition, that Mennin succeeds in creating an abstract ambiguity that transcends comparisons. The squat, beehive-shaped marble Cateja, 1987, may resemble a petrified core whose shell or facade has long since disintegrated. A few bits of iron jut out of it like remnants of bones. Whatever art-historical reference may come to mind, however, is defeated by Cateja’s stubborn indifference to meaning.

Ray Kass