New York

Kathleen McCarthy

Gracie Mansion

In two separate installations, Kathleen McCarthy used the form of the human hand to demonstrate both the dexterity and the limitations of anatomy, as well as the persistence and inadequacy of conventional symbols. In both situations, the familiar form triggered a range of funny impressions and disturbing speculations.

On four walls of the main gallery, McCarthy wrapped a series of 26 larger-than-life-sized wooden hands colored with red phosphorous around the room. Each hand formed a letter in sign language, and they were arranged in alphabetical order. Entitled Muted Exhortations (both works 1990), this installation, in its methodical depiction of the sign language alphabet, presented a formal and spatial analogue for the struggle of communication between the hearing and the nonhearing, and for our dependence on sight and touch when sound does not exist. The wooden hands emphasized the arduous process of constructing language and meaning, and the blazing pigmentation suggested a furious urgency to connect. Thought and reception are almost immediate, but signs are deliberately made; communication is shown as a syncopated, frustrating affair.

In a smaller space, McCarthy used the graceful agility of the hand to evoke suggestive rather than explicit ideas. In Form & Capacity, two sets of four enormous outstretched hands were mounted on opposite walls above the viewers’ heads. On the west wall the hands extended with the palms facing down in what looked like gestures of shielding or protection. The four additional hands were formed in a similar pose but the palms faced up cupping diminishing piles of wheat. The hands opposite each other appeared to reach out but never touched. Made of wire aluminum mesh, the open, porous surfaces could not block or securely grasp the small pieces of grain; slight disturbances caused the wheat to fall through the open skins and gather uselessly on the floor. In this installation, the hand was literally an empty sign; there was no assurance of either representational veracity or functional capacity.

In both installations the hands—whether wood or wire—revealed the failures and frustrations of the sign. The historical connections between anthropomorphism and abstract ideas (and ideals) have generally depended on a conception of the human body as a complete, dependable device—as the purveyor of lasting values and elevating aspirations. Here, McCarthy made use of these familiar implications, but she played with context, scale, and materials to depict the limitations of all symbols. She whimsically highlighted the meaning distortions that occur between intention and execution. These eloquent hands stood for actions fumbled or unfulfilled, for inflated symbols that go unchallenged.

Patricia C. Phillips