New York

Mary Carlson

Bill Maynes Gallery

Startlingly fresh, Mary Carlson’s exhibition was a small miracle of the suspension of disbelief: a garden of memory transplanted into real time and space. Spindly trees and weeds carved of wood sprouted from the cement floor. Concrete deer regarded the viewer with wary alertness. Singing with color, nearly forty porcelain birds perched on a shelf (as on a wire) that ran along the perimeter of one room. These, among other sculptures and one drawing, all work from the past two years, were arranged sparsely, leaving the spacious gallery less than wholly transformed, in a state between waking and dreaming, like Max’s bedroom undergoing its metamorphosis in Where the Wild Things Are.

This spectacle was especially surprising compared to Carlson’s impressive but much more confined 1996 show, in which sculptures of upholstered furniture with inviting arms and impossibly narrow seats crowded the gallery’s former space in SoHo. The artist’s move to flora and fauna, from an indoor to an outdoor subject, from nightmare to fantasy, is not entirely a departure, of course. Such shifts are typical of Carlson, who is perhaps best known for a ghostly body of work—wholly unlike the bulky furniture—comprising ephemeral figurative silhouettes cut from veils of fabric. And while the animal sculptures represent nature, they are strictly ornamental, more domesticated than wild. The deer are of the lawn variety, perhaps remembered from some grandparent’s yard. The birds, some of them modeled after Audubon illustrations, are parlor pets, cousins of the tchotchkes in the china cupboard. Even the fauna seems as redolent of culture as of nature: Tree of Heaven I, 1997, depicts a kind of acanthus that thrives in North American cities, and is practically a weed in New York. There is also a carryover from Carlson’s furnishings of the dysfunctional: most of the ceramics are broken. But whereas the stunted seating had a neurotic edge, these busted creatures have achieved a state of grace. Patched Deer, 1997, is lovingly (if obviously) repaired; Dented Bird, 1997, and No Head, 1997, are presented as is, wing-to-wing with Mexican Jay, 1997, and Pigeon, 1997.

The points of breakage produce a sense that these objects were physically dragged out of the past, scoured from old pictures (the palette of the birds is reminiscent of old Kodachrome) or dredged from memory. During the process, bits and pieces, as well as some definition, were naturally lost. For Carlson, the damage wrought by time is simply a sign of its smooth passage and continuity; it doesn’t give rise to a reflection on the pathos of ruin. She brings home this fact of life with precision in Mold III, 1997, a watercolor drawing that appeared to be gently decaying, and in a group of glass sculptures that are swabbed daily with water, trompe l’oeil blocks of ice melting like tears into tap water. Such a pragmatic outlook checks any recourse to nostalgia, where the past is always perfect, without limiting the potential for poetry. Memory, as reckoned here, becomes a force of nature to observe, represent, submit to, and survive.

Ingrid Schaffner