New York

Nancy Dwyer

Josh Baer

Nancy Dwyer has always treated words as physical objects, realizing them in sculptural form or strewing clunky three-dimensional characters across the blank backgrounds of monumental canvases. Borrowing texts from television and advertising, she attempts to reinvest these hollow slogans with meaning. Words are positioned in ways that invite multiple mix-’n’-match readings. In Matter, 1990, the words “you,” “me,” “leave,” and “be,” printed on spheres resembling atoms in a scientific diagram, form several significant permutations: “You leave me,” “You leave me be,” “Leave me,” “Be me,” etc. Similarly, in Family Secret, 1990, the words “family,” “secret,” “sacred,” and “member” spelled out across a set of dining chairs generate combinations such as “family member,” “sacred family,” and “sacred secret.”

Dwyer has streamlined her work by eliminating the diaphanous figures that floated across earlier paintings and giving the words prominence. From the rosewood, birch, walnut, and ash letters of Race Rage, 1990, to the buffed surface of a triptych of paintings in which fragments of conversations stutter across the canvases like highway stripes, the new pieces are decidedly more polished. Dwyer’s sense of humor pops up throughout, most notably in an enormous one-liner called Big Ego, 1990, in which inflated yellow letters spelling “ego” are anchored by miniscule fishing weights. Elsewhere, Dwyer plays with ludicrous discrepancies between form and content, medium and message; the sinister command of Kill Yourself, 1989, is conveyed in bouncy cartoon letters set on a background of dopey turquoise-green bubbles.

While all of this makes for a mildly diverting viewing experience; the problems arise when Dwyer tries to address contemporary social ills with the speed and levity indigenous to her glib phrases and slick visuals. Dwyer lacks Barbara Kruger’s bite and Jenny Holzer’s bemused, ruminative edge; somehow she seems less emotionally engaged with her subjects. Race Rage looks like so many units of upscale modulor office furniture, and trivializes its subject; Family Secret succeeds neither as criticism nor as homage to the family unit—a construct which, in any case, is in no way examined or elucidated by the piece. The show’s most striking work, a sculpture called Food, 1990, in which four industrial-style galvanized steel garbage cans shaped like the individual letters spell out the title, catches the eye more by the surprising “square-doughnut” effect of seeing familiar objects reconfigured than by its ability to speak about hunger, homelessness, and other contradictions within our society. Dwyer’s emotional detachment and her sense of playing with—rather than delving into—her subjects results in an overall weightlessness. Her messages float like Ego’s inflatable characters—an ironic effect for a project that set out to give words the weight and substance of physical reality.

Lois E. Nesbitt