New York

Cecilia Vicuña

The exhibition began before one reached the gallery, in the creaky old elevator that took a long time to rise. Passive and expectant, the viewer, who had yet to see anything, heard something instead—an ethereal trilling, a woman’s voice singing what could have been a lullaby in an unidentifiable language or an improvised melody. Spatially acute, emotionally direct, but physically elusive, Cecilia Vicuña’s Canto (all works 1999) is typical of this Chilean artist—a poet, performer, and sculptor whose work has been little seen in New York outside the 1997 Whitney Biennial. Produced by Art in General, in collaboration with Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center in Buffalo and DiverseWorks Artspace in Houston, Vicuña’s recent show, “cloud-net,” offered a précis of a career that spans three decades and as many media.

The installation cloud-net filled the gallery space with what Vicuña calls the “being and non-being of weaving.” Ten thick, soft strands of white merino wool were woven across the room, subdividing the gallery into large, open squares. The over/under intersections were loose and the cords slack, so that while the ends were attached where the walls met the ceiling, the net hung low in the center; someone wishing to cross the middle had to duck in and out of its mesh. Tailored to the venue’s old SoHo interior, the webbing surrounded support columns, throwing graceful, rayed shadows onto the pressed-tin ceiling. The undyed, unspun wool was, like a cloud, both light and dense, sensuous yet insubstantial. Minimal, almost bland in visual terms, cloud-net worked on the perceptions as air does, holding the body in a gentle yet insistent matrix.

Vicuña’s attention to contingent materials has been linked to arte povera and Fluxus, as well as to certain aspects of Minimalism, though it derives, too, from her long investigation of indigenous Andean aesthetics and textiles. In the tradition of Lygia Clark and Hélio Oiticica, Vicuña blends political activism with experimental aesthetic practice. Exiled from Chile after the 1973 coup against Salvador Allende (she has since returned to her homeland), the artist creates poetry, performances, and sculpture that rely on the fragile and the friable—those aspects of language, action, and objects that, as she has said, are “twice precarious, they come from prayer and predict their own destruction.”

Like David Hammons or Gabriel Orozco—artists to whom she is often compared—Vicuña composes her work with a shamanic relish for refuse and a taste for puns both linguistic and visual. The associative looseness of her titles and her fondness for bilingual fragments result in work that often requires intuitive completion by her audience. This was most playfully evident in poet’s table, a collection of the signature assemblages, or precarios, she has been making since the ’60s. Little haikus of detritus, they incorporate raveled yarn, bits of twine, broken plastic, sticks, grass, wire, and shells. A discarded piece of bamboo shade, woven with bright yarn scraps, becomes a fragile loom; a bit of plastic netting balances against a stick. Arrayed on a plain plywood shelf in a closet-size side room, the pieces could be read individually or as a group. A sheet of paper on the wall invited viewers to match individual precarios with one of the titles listed. Crashed pencils and grid fuchsia were fairly easy to identify, but which was walker st or telar imposible? The poet in question became the viewer.

Frances Richard