New York

Petah Coyne

Brooklyn Museum / Jack Shainman Gallery

In these two concurrent exhibitions, Petah Coyne’s powerful, instinctual work coalesces into a potent whole. The materials and formal syntax used for the large sculptures are similar, but Coyne uncovers rich nuances within each object’s precise parameters. Her installation at the Brooklyn Museum of three suspended hulks (all works, 1989) was momentarily startling and visually stunning. Within the vastness of this beaux-arts lobby, Coyne had arranged the dangling elements to establish an assertive dialogue with a difficult public space. The works read at the same time as a planned ensemble and as independent objects.

The pieces are entirely black and constructed of steel, wire, oil, screen, black sand, and black paint. They were hung from the museum ceiling on thick, encrusted cords. The largest piece has an organic, ample shape, roughly that of a cone, but its monolithic geometry is misleading. It looks like a smooth, solid object, but actually is formed by a dense network of podlike shapes; its surface is sinewy. The work’s heavy, dense mass was strung just above the floor, making its weight and the force of gravity visually explicit. Another piece in this triumvirate is a twisted, tortured black cluster; the center is hollowed out like a gourd, and the void contains a vessel of viscous black oil. The organic form embraces the deadly fuel, creating a shrine—or an effigy—to its lethal effect on the imperiled environment.

The seven multi-media sculptures that were shown at Jack Shainman are smaller and lighter, their sense of mass less substantial; air moves freely through them. Untitled (635) is composed of two elements. The top of the suspended piece is an umbrellalike shape of wiry tendrils. At its outer circumference hang small sacks and nestlike shapes. At bottom is a large, gray, pearlike shape covered with stitched panels of cloth. There is a less sober quality to this piece; the materials are not so threatening and their use is more whimsical.

These exhibitions mark a dramatic change for Coyne. While her formal preoccupations remain much the same as in her earlier work, the vocabulary and manipulation of materials has changed. Rather than using found, organic stuff that is often fragile and inherently ephemeral, she now employs heavy, industrial, and slightly sinister materials. They establish a presence that is deeply disturbing; they appear to be exactly those noxious, toxic substances that fill the earth each day with more extremely tenacious pollution.

This visceral dimension sharpens the philosophical questions her work raises. The relationship between nature and humanity is cast in all its turbulence and menace. These powerful, eloquent pieces are signs of tenuousness, uncertainty, and gravity. Coyne’s work also shows how a private fascination with abstraction and observation, when intelligently transformed, can communicate in a thoroughly compelling manner, and how a personal language can convey a potent, universal, political message.

Patricia C. Phillips