New York

Cornelia Parker

Deitch Projects

A runner-up for last year’s Turner Prize, the English artist Cornelia Parker has gotten steadily better known in Europe over the past half-dozen years (now in her early forties, she has been exhibiting since 1980), but she had her first solo show here only this spring. As if to make up for lost time, the heart of the New York debut was Mass (Colder Darker Matter), 1997, a work included in the Turner Prize exhibition and so presumably picked to represent the artist at her best. Indeed this sculpture partly remakes a groundbreaking piece for Parker, Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View, 1991, one of her first to make a splash in England.

In both Cold Dark Matter and Colder Darker Matter, Parker restores volume to a building previously flattened—in the earlier piece, a garden shed that she arranged to have blown up; in the second, a Texas church burned in a lightning strike—by stringing the blackened fragments from filaments so that they float in space, fleshing out a three-dimensional form. Suspension as a sculptural device recalls post-Minimal experiments like those of Loren Madsen, but the history of Parker’s materials injects them with a sense of narrative alien to that generation. Here Parker aligns with the various artists—Charles Ray, Aimee Morgana (formerly Aimee Rankin), Tony Tasset, and others—who have filled Minimalist forms with contents originally suppressed.

This avenue misleads, though, since Parker also makes works of far less visual substance. Wedding Ring Drawing (Circumference of a Living Room), 1997, for example, is described as “two 22-carat-gold wedding rings drawn into wire,” and looks like—is—a coil of wire in a frame. Optically mild, it depends for its effect on its captionlike verbal supplement, through which it compresses an entire life situation (the rings are paired, their owners no longer wear them, the wire measures a domestic space). Similarly dependent on explanation are several other wire works, and also the abstract drawings that are more interesting because done, say, in a medium made of dissolved porno tapes, or in “snake venom and ink” (with a twin drawn in “correction fluid and antivenom”), than for anything about the way they look.

Reliance on external information was suspect in whole schools of Modernism, but has a provenance in others, including the line from Marcel Duchamp to Piero Manzoni and on. What distinguishes Parker in this history is the inventive alchemy by which her objects and materials are transmuted—often through pressure or violence, but nonetheless magically and totally—while still signaling their earlier life. The fact that burned wood is also charcoal is important to Parker, who described Mass (Colder Darker Matter) to an interviewer as a charcoal drawing.

The word “mass” is another clue, for it belongs to the language of religion as well as to that of physics. Parker, raised a Catholic, has said, “The whole notion of transubstantiation, the changing of one substance into another, has clearly influenced the way I think as an artist. And then there were the holy relics, of no significance to look at until one knew it was a splinter from the bone of a saint.” And so it is with wedding-ring wire, its significance deriving from its hidden past life. Works like this may be visually unrewarding, but their crowd-pleasing, who’d-a-thunk-it ingenuity gives them a sense of compacted meaning, restoring some kind of aura to the art object.

David Frankel