New York

Ann Messner

Fawbush Gallery

Ann Messner makes quiet disturbances, using simple forms, common objects, and often the conventions of museological display. Near the entrance to the gallery, the artist installed two adjoining steel shelves each supporting three textured. rusted canisters with raised images of open, grasping hands eerily etched on their surfaces. Five of the sealed vessels sit on top of the shelves, but the sixth is suspended precariously below; it appears to have fallen somehow through the substantial surface. Its lid is absent, and the empty interior is coated with a milky white wax normally used to seal containers in the canning process. The title, Putting Up Preserves (all works 1991), might suggest a sweet tribute to the domestic chore of storing fruits and vegetables at summer’s end, but the forms raise menacing thoughts of rotting barrels of toxic materials.

This piece is emblematic of Messner’s challenging analysis and subtle amendations of the commonplace. Under her surveillance, simple objects are revealed as spacious receptacles of cultural significance, and the ordinary becomes iconic. Ironically, concealment is central to her strategic activities. Baggage consists of a procession of four valises arranged in graduated size that all look as if they were dipped in a vat of white wax. While the contours are only marginally changed, details are diminished and dulled by the viscous coatings. No longer serving a functional purpose, they suggest tangible apparitions that signal the inevitable isolation of travel—life lived from a suitcase. The waxen layers encase and preserve the objects’ physicality, yet the baggage simultaneously seems in peril of losing its solidity.

Chest is a steel case positioned on two steel plates. Its partially raised lid reveals thick sides and an empty interior; what might have been its contents lie strewn about the gallery floor. Cafeteria-style coffee cups, plates, bowls, a phone receiver, and a pair of binoculars, all coated in white wax, suggest a collection of common objects that have been released from this hermetic container. They are random specimens for study—mummies that had once been sealed to ensure passage into the future. But in the process of collection and preservation, the objects were deformed and deprived of usefulness as well as of their intended meanings.

In an environmental, interactive piece entitled Untitled: a journey of a thousand miles must begin with a single step, a quartet of low, steel platforms designates a field of activity. In the northwest quadrant sits a generic steel chair. Diagonal to this is a small apparatus with a hot plate on its side. Both objects are electrified and give off considerable heat. Around the outer edges of the steel floor, overlapping footprints suggest a halo of movement. The site concerns both vigil and pilgrimage—both occupation and agitation.

The combination of wax and steel materially substantiates the issues that drive Messner’s work. Both materials acquire their forms through heating that softens and cooling that solidifies, but their effects diverge. One material is structural, tough, and unyielding; the other concerns surface, softness, and preservation. The wax subdues the material evidence of objects, but it also stimulates another level of perceptual engagement. Messner constructs ghostly presences that clarify the conditions of material culture.

Patricia C. Phillips