New York

Petah Coyne

Petah Coyne’s extraordinary wax sculptures mark a departure from her earlier work, but I am not convinced (as some have been) that she has abandoned the dark for the light and embarked on a career as an optimist. True, the new works are bridal-white rather than black, and they are almost giddily festive, but they retain a strong element of the macabre. It is a change of degree only—a shift from ominous baroque to rococo inflected with Gothic revival.

Since all the pieces are suspended from the ceiling (as we have come to expect from Coyne) and thickly encrusted with extinguished candles, they resemble chandeliers. The first phrases to leap into my mind were “haunted ballroom” and “Miss Havisham.” It turns out that Dickens’ crazed, jilted bride is one of Coyne’s favorite fictional characters. I next thought of the dripping candelabra in Ingmar Bergman’s Smiles of a Summer Night, 1955, but I should probably stop here, since Coyne’s work has at least as much to do with popular culture as high art. It evokes all the clichés of “true romance”—bouquets of roses, songbirds, ballet skirts, trailing ribbons, and towering wedding cakes, all turned ghostly by pale layers of wax. There is much more at stake here than a post-Modern play with items of kitsch. Coyne’s manipulation of this imagery is so extravagant, passionate, and imbued with pathos that mere irony is left far behind. The celebration is over (the candles are put out), or perhaps the preparations were made yet it never happened; we are left with a haunting but unspecified sense of loss.

It is saddening to think of these pieces being separated. Ideally they should become a permanent installation. Taken together they present a visual drama of nearly operatic proportions. It is rather like listening to 17 synchronized coloratura mad scenes at once. Thankfully, Coyne is more lyrical than histrionic, nevertheless an element of controlled excess is central to this work, to which purists may object. Purists always object. Coyne is one of the few artists working in New York who is capable of genuine imaginative excess (as against overkill), and without that capability what use is restraint or purity of conception?

For all its allusiveness, the drama of this work is inherent in its material. The pieces are at once massive and excruciatingly delicate. (The show must have been a nightmare to install.) Standing under the domelike, wax-drenched armature of one of the larger pieces it was hard not to wonder about the reliability of the satin-sheathed chain from which it was suspended. On the other hand, I found myself circling nervously around other pieces, wanting to touch but worried that I might inadvertently snap off a bird’s wing, the petal of a rose or some fantastic festoon.

Coyne has tapped into powerful ambiguities in which unease and enchantment are linked, much as they are in fairy tales. This may be her best show to date. It is, without doubt, the most lavishly beautiful.

John Ash