Alice Aycock

Alice Aycock’s retrospective, “Complex Visions,” which marks the 30th anniversary of Storm King, both continued and challenged the outdoor sculpture park’s prevailing conditions. Aycock’s level of accomplishment was equal to Storm King’s pageant of art, but it was her display of restless intelligence, unreined curiosity, and rebellious departure that made the exhibition remarkable.

Aycock’s delight in mismatched ideas from philosophical, scientific, and cultural sources complicates and enriches her work, and this exhibition confirmed an ever-widening, discursive outlook. Low Building with Dirt Roof (for Mary), 1990, one of three outdoor pieces, was a reconstruction of a piece originally built in Pennsylvania in 1973. This wood-framed hip roof covered with dirt is supported on low stone walls. Less than 30 inches in height, the structure requires a squatting motion to look at the interior. The sweet green smell of a thick coat of grass on the roof did not diminish the disturbing qualities of a damp, claustrophobic space that was roof and foundation, attic and cellar, at the same time.

Aycock’s understanding of space has expanded, and is now informed by cultural influences that extend beyond the usual Western spatial experience. An interest in the design and construction of games, the dynamics of chance, and the inevitability of risk invaded the work in the late ’70s and ’80s, and during this period Aycock’s projects came to involve tumbling dice, the roulette wheel, and the repetitious movements of menacing machines. An indoor piece, How to Catch and Manufacture Ghosts, 1979, is a vast theatrically lit assemblage of props and pulleys inspired by the belief of some early inventors that their new electrical and magnetic apparatuses could capture supernatural presences. Aycock’s fragile technology, which conforms to a system based on both logic and faith, was disarmed in this installation by a quotation on the wall describing a schizophrenic’s sensation of dreaming himself back home in his mother’s kitchen.

Aycock’s precise drawings illuminate the ways that she anticipates and makes space, explores and constructs order. Fantasy Drawing for Storm King Sculpture, 1990, is a spartan, restrained vision of the immense sculpture she built for this retrospective. The sculpture has two complex elements. In the foreground a horizontal wheel, with hip-roofed huts arranged in a spokelike configuration, serves as a dependable vernacular foundation for an elaborate steel balcony with railings and picket fences. Above this platform another steel disc supports a ring of large rocks and a small tree. The other component is an enormous rotatable roulette wheel propped up like a target. The wheel has an aperture that “selects” astronomical signs, making it an immense horoscope driven simultaneously by the serial order of the zodiac cycle and by the unruly principles of chance.

This new sculpture was installed close to Aycock’s low-roofed reconstruction. The formal differences were sensational: simple farm vernacular had evolved into a sophisticated, fanciful machine, but the intellectual and spatial demands of the works were not so dissimilar. Aycock’s work continues to challenge, but the conditions perpetually change. A more cautious artist might edit a compendium of such disparate ideas and influences into some kind of coherence, but Aycock likes the risk of velocity in new territory.

Patricia C. Phillips