Los Angeles

Wolfgang Laib

Burnett Miller Gallery

Wolfgang Laib’s modest arrangements of natural substances exhale cool sensory promise, stillness, and a meditative serenity, cuing notions of bounty, famine, fertility, and germination.

The first of four works encountered by the viewer, an austere white square gleaming in the middle of the floor, entitled Milkstone, 1983–87, exudes a low-key grace. Is it stone polished to look like liquid, or a mysterious four-sided puddle of milk? Both, in fact, for Laib has taken a flat marble slab, and finished its surface in such a way that it can hold a thin layer of milk poured on top of it. Replenished daily, the milk seems to fuse seamlessly with the stone, it is impossible to tell from any single angle where the heavy stone ends and the wet delicate skin of milk begins. Laib’s works, presented unprotected, provoke us to disturb them, to touch the milk’s surface, for example, which has a day’s worth of dust particles floating almost invisibly on it.

A clunky rudimentary house-form of dull yellowish beeswax entitled Ein verschlossenes Haus (A sealed house, 1990), was mounted on a wall, a few feet from the ceiling. Reminiscent of a lump of candy, the piece rested on two wooden beams jutting out from the wall like withered arms, and seemed to reference a coffin. The meaning of “verschlossenes” perfectly fits this bulky, ancient-looking shape that calls to mind some oversized fetish object, whose symbolic significance has been long forgotten.

Carved from a crumbly looking marble, the smaller house-form, entitled Rice House, 1990, resembles a slab of blue cheese. Positioned on the floor with white rice banked up around its base, this second white-on-white work looked as though it were decomposing into tiny bits. Although the organic associations the piece brings up are largely pastoral, intimations of decay made this a slightly frightening work; from a distance, the rice grains visually suggested maggots.

Centered in a room by itself, Pollen from Dandelion, 1989, a square of radiant yellow-orange pollen sifted to a fine dust, also tempted the viewer to violate its pristine surface. With its riveting, glowing color, the pollen served as a small attention-getting flag that seemed to emit energy. It was as if the room containing the piece had turned into some giant blossom, and here, in the middle, was its intensely colored heart. One cannot help being aware of the interplay between the natural and the manipulated in most of Laib’s work. Pollen is inherently attractive due to its brilliant hue, but in this unnatural accumulation it almost hurt the eyes. These pieces give off the ritual fragrance of primitive shrines.

Amy Gerstler