New York

Wolfgang Laib

Sperone Westwater

The literature on Wolfgang Laib tends to draw from a set group of references. The coolly sensuous materials (beeswax, rice, pollen, milk, stone, occasional metals) are noted of necessity in every article, as are his early medical training, his hermetic working practices, and his interest in the ecstatic asceticism of Rumi and St. Francis. Laib’s tangential allegiance to Minimalism figures in, along with his deeper affinity with the idea of art-as-social-healer espoused by his countryman Joseph Beuys. The quartet of works in this show are all forms the artist has exhibited before, meditative repetition being more central to his work than innovation. What came to the fore here, however, was an aspect of Laib’s interests discussed infrequently: the dyad of architecture and landscape as an underlying principle in his work.

The exhibit took its title from the work that occupied the gallery’s larger space, Nowhere-Everywhere, 1998: a pair of symmetrical stepped walls, extending to the ceiling, like matching sections sliced from a ziggurat. Made of fragrant beeswax panels secured to a wood frame, the double structure was imposing and, owing to the luminous ocher of the material, almost palpably warm. Reading as stairway and temple, tomb and chimney, it suggested, without quite inviting, entrance or participation. In the next room, a smaller, untitled beeswax stairway led only to the white wall, while the marble Rice House, 1996, a foot-high, barn-shaped block of stone skirted by little mounds of rice, reiterated the theme of a shelter paradoxically scaled and impenetrable.

An untitled piece from 1998 expanded and confounded thoughts about the relation between the organic and the engineered. In a square niche set in the wall stood a glowing cone of brilliant yellow hazelnut pollen, sifted to a delicate point on top but haloed with bright dust at its base. The result is that the geometric forms of the cone within the square seemed both perfect and imperfect, rational and wild. The cone echoed the little hills of rice surrounding the marble house, which in turn offered the isosceles peak of its roof to rhyme with the right angles of the stepped beeswax.

If the four works are taken as parts of a single edifice, a kind of dwelling place for the mind, Laib’s manipulation of scale creates subtle disorientations. The house is small while the stairways tower over it; the steps cannot be climbed; the square “window” cut in the wall is life-size but gives onto a peak that is tiniest of all. Walking among these enigmatic landmarks, one registered simultaneously the voluptuous traces of life and the mathematically fastidious sculptural dimensions, obviously the product of human intelligence. The comparisons sometimes drawn between Laib’s work and the pure geometries of such artists as Malevich, Mondrian, and Brancusi asserted themselves, but the earthiness, the whiff of mortality in Laib’s organic substances, offsets an exclusively formal reading. The will to order is held in tension by an equally powerful undercurrent of irreducible natural force. The careful arrangement imparted to the viewer a sense of hovering—a feeling of being everywhere and nowhere, as if the empty floor between the sculptures were uncharted terrain from which Laib’s blocks and triangles rose like ideograms.

Frances Richard