New York

Alice Aycock

John Weber Gallery

Best known for such outdoor projects as Maze, 1972, and A Simple Network of Underground Wells and Tunnels, 1975, Alice Aycock is also a committed draftsman who has produced an extensive corpus of drawings. More than simply plans for projects, Aycock’s drawings are works in their own right, fantasies on paper that echo the history of visionary design, stretching back to Piranesi and Boullée. At the same time, they exemplify their own moment, announcing the shift from the phenomenological environment of Minimalism to a metaphorized architecture or earthwork. The development of land art and built structures during the early ’70s opened up new possibilities for drawing. If the Minimal work was represented in schematic form (usually, a no-nonsense diagram on graph paper) then the earthwork demanded something more. Once practice began to exceed the physical limits of the sculptural object and the “white cube,” drawing could explore a range of figurative languages.

Aycock’s plans for structures, Smithson’s sketches of earthworks, and Robert Morris’ designs of labyrinths reveal a diversity of graphic technique. Where Smithson created prophetic, quasi-expressionist landscape drawings in pencil, Aycock turned out meticulous plans and elevations that resemble actual blueprints, a tendency often attributed to the fact that her father was a contractor. Aycock’s simulation of the language of architectural representation is distinctive and powerful, but it points to the internal contradiction of much of this work. Drawings by land artists appeared by necessity to prove the viability of a practice that exceeded the physical and esthetic constraints of Modernist painting and sculpture, yet Aycock’s designs, for all their meticulous detail, delight in their unrealizability; schemes to be built, they conceive the unbuildable. Aycock’s “architecture” is in fact one of buildings gone awry, an architecture that precludes and subverts its functional imperative.

The focus of these schemes is the viewer’s body. In Project for Five Wells Descending a Hillside, 1975, the visitor scales down a wall into a cistern. Climbing through an opening in another wall, then down several steps, one comes to a second well. This procedure is repeated until the fifth well is reached, the steepest of enclosures positioned at the hill’s base. And what is the reward for completing this arduous descent? Only the brute awareness of one’s entrapment. In Low Building with Dirt Roof, a project built in Pennsylvania in 1973, the spectator is confined inside a structure with a low ceiling. Subjecting the viewer to sensations of claustrophobia and mortal threat, Aycock’s work belies the contemporary feminist reading that equates the installation-based art of physical duress or metaphorized “punishment” of those years (evident in the work of Morris, Walter De Maria, Bruce Nauman, and Vito Acconci) with an exclusively male subjectivity. In the case of Aycock, the transformation of the abstract environment of Minimalism into a locus of historical and allegorical allusion was above all a deeply personal gesture. Low Building was inspired by a young girl’s death; Maze alludes to Morris’ 1961 Passageway as well as to the very source of the labyrinthine form, the palace at Knossos. The allegorical dimension of her work, inchoate in these early structures, would become increasingly salient. The drawing A Shanty Town Which Has A Lunatic Charm That Is Quite Engaging or Rather A Shanty Town Inhabited by Two Lunatics Whose Charms Are Quite Engaging, 1978, with its elaborate descriptions of the settlement’s “white trash” inhabitants, was a decided turning point. By the ’80s Aycock’s works began to explore a palimpsest of religious and metaphysical narratives, giving scriptural narratives visual form. In The Garden of Scripts (Villandry), 1986, the hedges of the famous garden are reconfigured into allées of calligraphic letters. Transformations in technique are also discernible. In The Celestial City Game, 1988, the spatiality of Western axionometric representation is flattened through the decorative effects of watercolor so that the work resembles an Islamic manuscript illumination. As her drawings became more luxuriantly colored, their likeness to architectural plans is lost; never before has realization seemed less important, though, to be sure, some of these projects would be built. To me, these later works are less satisfying than the artist’s stark graphite renditions, which rooted allegorical meaning in an imagined bodily experience. As Aycock’s narratives became increasingly elaborate, and the textual nature of her work became dominant, drawing—once a means for producing the realized structure—was no longer a supplementary medium but emerged as the very core of her activity.

James Meyer