New York

Doris Salcedo

The three works recently on view from Doris Salcedo’s ongoing series “Unland” develop variations on a single formal premise: one pair of legs has been amputated from each of two plain, unmatched wooden tables; the legless ends of the two tables are joined to form a single, distended, four—legged unit that looks as though it might be held upright only by the equilibrium of the opposing tendencies to fall inward. Each half is impaired, but together they arrive at a kind of precarious mutual support.

“I can understand that two are man and woman,” Mark Rothko once said, looking at a friend’s abstraction, “three are man, woman, and child.” So it seems to be here. One sculpture, Unland: irreversible witness, 1995–98, includes a third element, part of a metal toy crib that fuses into the surface of the smaller table of the pair, clearly evoking a child clinging to its mother. So perhaps we are justified in seeing the smaller of the paired tables in each sculpture as woman, the bulkier as man? Such an anthropomorphic view, hard enough to avoid, is made almost inevitable by Salcedo’s rather extraordinary treatment of their surfaces. At first it appears that parts of the wood have been bleached nearly white, while elsewhere fine lines seem to have been drawn onto them, occasionally quite densely, more often rather sparingly. In fact, the white areas have been created by stretching a sheer silk mesh like a translucent skin over the wood; the fine lines are individual hairs that have been woven through the minute holes of the fabric.

The effect is ultrarefined, at once poignant and chilling. The urge to endow Minimalist form with the pathos of the everyday may be all too common these days, in the wake of Rachel Whiteread, Felix Gonzalez—Torres, and others, but Salcedo’s variant, melding Minimalism and Surrealism, is so subtly managed that the pathos feels earned in a way it doesn’t always in this kind of work. And yet a second, unintended level of pathos attaches to these sculptures: there is something ultimately self—defeating in their extreme, deliberate frailty. For practical reasons, viewers must be kept at such a distance from them that their fragile, elusive surfaces become almost impossible to make out. And then there were the warnings posted around the room: “Please use extreme caution when looking at the works.” You know what they mean, and yet one might almost take the caution literally, as if these pieces were too delicate even to bear scrutiny.

Is anything human, however bruised, ever as flimsy as that? Only the fanciest things demand such care in handling, and despite their aura of humility, poverty, and suffering, Salcedo’s sculptures, like any works of art, are also—not only but also—luxury goods. In art, even pain becomes voluptuous. The surrounding texts, asking us to see Salcedo’s sculpture in light of Colombia’s dire history of political violence, complicated that recognition; finally though, the works lack the dose of irony that would help us come to terms with that complexity.

Barry Schwabsky