New York

Alice Aycock

John Weber Gallery

In this startlingly seductive show sculptures, drawings, and texts conspired to create an absurd parallel universe replete with desire and violence. Aycock’s work invoked a dizzying array of esoteric allusions, including references to the Hebrew Cabala and Max Planck’s theory of quantum physics. The three complex sculptures—two recent works and a “blade machine” from 1984—evoked amusement-park architecture, ancient astronomical devices, and alarmingly oversized pocket games and pinwheels. Together, all the pieces in the show meditated on our psychological investment in understanding the universe: in six of the seven ink drawings precisely drawn images of dance steps, battle plans, cities, and pictographs were splayed out against a background of constellations.

The incantatory texts, part of a continuing work of fiction integral to Aycock’s project, construct a heady quasi-narrative in which actions are at times measured, at times convulsive. A snippet from this “endless tale” runs: “. . . the dancers play dice with the stars. When they try to go home, they find that the doors have been shut and locked and they have to jump over space in order to get inside. That is why the years seem like days to them.” The text’s supernal game of chance is echoed in Some Night Action, 1993—its multiple parts include a sinuous aluminum “slide” that empties onto a low, circular platform mapped with constellations and riddled with circular holes. When this “game” is played, blue marbles spill onto this surface, forming random clusters of false stars.

The Key Of the Years, 1993, suggests a medieval astronomical instrument. Motorized, it convulses at intervals, rotating an array of rectangles made out of mirrored glass, each sandblasted with a single word. The mirrors reflect one another, forming ghostly pairs: “AH-HA/AH-HA; WAY/YAW; TA TA/AT AT . . .” These “words” constitute the bones of a language derived from an English dictionary and founded on visual symmetry, forming what the artist calls “an enclosed universe of language.”

Aycock’s obsessive erudition, her affection for games, and the night sky’s weighty presence in her work bring to mind Joseph Cornell’s assemblages, which—despite the difference in scale—create a similar feeling of vertigo. Her oblique references to war mirror Cornell’s interiorized violence, but in her work the boundaries of his fragile, contained world are exploded, leaving systems and ideas floating like detritus in space. In this work there is a sense that time collapses beneath the artist’s hand, which recalls a scenario posed by Jorge Luis Borges—if everything were to happen in the same moment, would we be overcome by horror? And what could possibly exist outside of that moment?

In Aycock’s work desire is infused with fierce plangency. She is startlingly adept at conveying the peculiar kind of spatial terror attendant to a fascination with mapping the universe—which is born of gravity, our great weakness. Or in Vladimir Nabokov’s words, “And really, the reason we think of death in celestial terms is that the visible firmament, especially at night . . . is the most adequate and ever-present symbol of that vast silent explosion.” Aycock’s work elicits an anxiety that is, like one’s consciousness of death, quietly debilitating, reminding one of what Borges described as our ultimate fear: that there is no labyrinth, no minotaur—no celestial matrix.

K. Marriott Jones