New York

Yolande McKay

S. Bitter-Larkin

Yolande McKay is an Los Angeles–based sculptor who incorporates overlooked everyday materials such as cement, soapscum, and rotting fruit into a sophisticated body of sculptural work. At first McKay’s heavy-looking oval basins, pseudo-scientific gadgets, and tableaux that seem to belong on display in a natural history or art museum, look rather institutional. On closer inspection, however, the apparent authority of each object is undermined by an inherent paradox. This is especially true of the basins, which recall sarcophagi in their imposing solidity. Sealed over with glass, and ostensibly empty save for the layers of brilliantly colored perpetually changing chemical oxides with which McKay has layered their inner surfaces, each basin bears a warning of sorts in block letters. Vitrification (all works 1990), bears the announcement “HERMETICALLY SEALED VITRIFICATION,” and Vitrol warns, “VOLATILE CONTAINMENT/DO NOT ENGAGE.”

While at first these objects coupled with warnings are intimidating, one quickly calls their bluff. Made of cement and fiberglass, they are actually quite light, and their ever-changing interiors undermine their initial sense of permanence. Challenging the objectivity of scientific inquiry, McKay employs a wry sense of humor to discredit the objective measuring of subjective phenomena. In Algometer: Instrument for Measuring Sensitivity to Cutaneous Pain, a long, cylindrical instrument hangs on the wall, attached by a pulley to a handle studded with spikes. The viewer is invited to pull the handle downward so that his or her ability to endure pain can be measured on a scale of one to ten; a score of ten indicates that the subject is “insensitive.” Counterbalanced Scumlogs is the title of another, similarly ridiculous contraption in which two logs of solidified soapscum are balanced by a pulley, and presented in a grandiose glass case, surrounded by meaningless numerical data. Here the artist apes the idea of scientific “log work,” the incessant collection of information.

Soapscum is McKay’s currently favored medium, and she presents the material in the form of long, narrow “scumlogs” or in piles of small- to medium-sized, scrotumlike “scumballs.” McKay makes maximum use of this material’s ambiguous meaning—while soap implies cleanliness, scum implies bodily filth. In Dispensation: Reconstituted Soapscum, a log hangs in a dispenser on the wall that feeds it onto an abrasive metal belt, operated by a hand crank. This work depends on a double entendre that alludes to the tradition of dispensation in the Catholic church, by which certain individuals are granted exemption from religious law. McKay’s irreverent choice of materials pokes fun at the arbitrary way in which spiritual exoneration may be handed out.

In two pieces entitled Marginal Justification and Elevated Scumballs: Impervious and Inaccessible, piles of scumballs are displayed as precious materials. In the former work they appear framed behind glass, in the latter, they are piled high on an elevated balcony. McKay lays bare the institutional tactic by which objects, even scum, are made to seem valuable by virtue of their inaccessibility, implicating the art system in the process. In the same spirit, a tableau entitled Sourballs with Abrasive Streak, in which rotting lemons lightly encased in wax and marked with a streak of carbide are framed behind glass, is a nature morte that visibly blooms with unappetizing life.

McKay’s ironic brand of institutional critique is successful because it is never didactic or self-serving. She does not use her art to illustrate or promote a specific agenda. Her sculptures set up poetically paradoxical situations that allow the viewer to recognize strategies of authority, and to reflect on his or her willingness to acquiesce passively.

Jenifer P. Borum