New York

Inge Mahn

Diane Brown Gallery

Inge Mahn’s sculptures consistently evoke references to common functional objects and architectural furnishings. In an exhibition at P.S.1 in 1981, Mahn constructed a wall of lockers, a row of chairs, and a coffinlike bed that was shrouded in an American flag. More recently, she has produced installations in which columns, banisters, or steps are interjected into an otherwise open exhibition arena. In her exhibition here, Mahn continued to play with simple, reductivist forms, producing a witty distance between her sculptures and the original objects that inspired them. In the front gallery, Mahn restated the room’s interlocking lattice of electrical conduit, water valves, heating pipes, sprinkler system, and Corinthian columns. Placed within this architectural pulmonary system were three columns to accompany the room’s existing one. From these she ran her own fabricated pipes and electrical conduit. Mahn constructed her pieces in a crude fashion, covering them with a roughly hewn layer of white plaster. The construction and placement of her surrogate structures clearly betrayed all architectural reason. Electrical conduit snaked around one column in a climbing zigzag formation. Another column was accompanied by a pipe system recalling a water riser. It rose from the floor and split into so many subsets that, by the time it reached the ceiling, the single pipe had become eight.

By playing with the functional details that make any room operational, Mahn manipulated the industrial ambience that typifies most cast-iron loft buildings in SoHo. Her work functions dialectically between an integration with and an opposition to the whitewashed walls of a gallery exhibition space. Her sculptures have a chameleon effect; they are camouflaged by their whiteness and their mimicry of the room’s architectural details. However, they are also demonstrative of the room and, therefore, pronounce aspects of the exhibition space that might normally go unrecognized. This installation evoked the absurd, not within the pieces themselves, but in regard to the constraints an artist must consider when preparing an exhibition. Mahn neutralized the conflict between artist and exhibition space by making it the subject of her installation.

Mahn’s other works are both more typically sculptural and less interesting; they take minimal forms and play with them in a way that becomes trite. In Balancierende Türme (Balancing towers, 1989), two structures, one resembling steps, the other a tower, seem to be held in balance by a rope. The precariousness of the balance, however, is undermined by a poorly hidden block of wood that props up the work. Whimsy is Mahn’s strongest weapon. It enables her work to become a satisfactory manipulation and even critique of minimalist form and of standard installation techniques. When it is misplayed, Mahn’s work becomes a caricature that lacks the power to stand on its own.

Kirby Gookin