New York

Inge Mahn

Diane Brown Gallery

Though in her previous show Inge Mahn amended the exhibition space with subtle but invasive plaster architectural elements that extended the existing structural and plumbing systems, here her intervention is less determined by the specific site.

Falling Crosses, 1991, consists of a dynamic arrangement of human-scaled white crosses, constructed of plywood, wrapped in burlap, and coated with white plaster. While some stand upright, most lean on a horizontal appendage and appear to have toppled over. In one corner, several stacked crosses nearly reach the gallery ceiling. Their instability is disquieting, as collapse appears imminent. The crowded gathering of similar forms, with their pure tone and craggy surfaces, establishes a mood of expectation. What might seem predictable in the use of a module is subverted by the scattered, skewed placement.

The cross is the sign of the institution. Whether secular or sacred, it normally offers assurance, but Mahn deprives this familiar form—and the viewer—of this anticipated security. Like fallen victims of violence or broken architectural ruins, the crosses suggest evidence of some catastrophic event. Yet, from certain points in the gallery, the somber weight of this confusion of forms provides images that are more optimistic and playful. The forms appear to cartwheel and somersault across the floor propelled not by some sinister force but by spontaneous pleasure.

The dialectic of playful and foreboding images is less subtle in the installation in the adjoining room. The forms are the same but the crosses are made of welded steel, turkey wire, and plaster. In these pieces the metal armature reacts with the moisture of the plaster discoloring and staining the surfaces. The three elements in Dancing Crosses lean toward each other, the horizontal arms just touching as if in a tentative embrace. Unlike the freewheeling, independent crosses in the main room, these forms seem bound up in a mutually dependent relationship; a slight adjustment of one could presumably destabilize them all.

A third sculpture, entitled Cage, 1990, consists of a white plaster chair placed on a low platform encircled by a small wooden fence. Instead of physical instability, there is the suggestion of psychological ambivalence. The chair is a restraint, a place of honor, a seat of justice, and a site of isolation.

Mahn’s works revision the ways images are perceived and empowered. Exploring the potency and the inadequacy of institutional and anthropomorphic symbols, it provides a view of the perceptual experience as the seat of discordant ideas. Playful, violent, elegiac, or menacing, these installations are a confirmation that the comic and tragic exist in all situations. Here the reliability of familiar forms is called into question, and the viewer is brought face-to-face with the problematics of desire and dependency.

Patricia C. Phillips