New York

Beverly Semmes

For some time now, Beverly Semmes’s sculptural installations have extended bodily forms through an eccentric, winsome Pop abstraction. Recently, her expanded dresses (whose hemlines cascade across the floor into velvety pools or undulating folds) and impossible costumes (without openings for head or limbs) have given way to room-filling forms of stuffed fabric. The centerpiece here was Untitled, 2001, a gorgeous pile of coiled chartreuse soft cylinders or tubular pillows that nearly touched the ceiling. Like most soft sculpture, these bright mils were funny right away and get even funnier with age. The giant pile seemed cartoonishly fecal, or fetal—perhaps it was the epic excremental love-child of Louise Bourgeois and Claes Oldenburg: mom and Pop’s plop. Looking at this glowing excrescence, one noticed a woman behind a desk in the back room of the gallery. She was dressed in a bright yellow jumpsuit made from the same material as the pile. Stern guardian, pile progeny, or artist surrogate? Then one saw that this woman’s yellow back was bathed in red light coming through a colored curtain over a window behind her, and that the whole gallery had been subtly Flavined with chartreuse and crimson light.

This exhibition, Semmes’s first solo show of sculpture in New York in three years, was drawn from a larger installation titled “Watching Her Feat,” created in collaboration with the Fabric Workshop and Museum in Philadelphia and exhibited there last fall. The title partly refers to a group of color videos of feet in various scenarios: For one of these, Around the Porch, 2000 (showing on a small monitor in the New York show), the artist pointed the camera at her feet as she walked briskly around a wooden deck, making for a pedestrian work that managed to be utterly compelling. In Philadelphia there were three chartreuse piles all in the same gallery. A window in that room was covered with a brilliant red curtain so that the red filtered daylight and the yellow reflected room light combined to striking advantage. At Tonkonow, with the red window in the back room of the gallery, the colors didn’t caress as provocatively as they did in Philadelphia, and the comic distortion of the work wasn’t as pointed. In fact, one of the best views of the gallery installation could he found in the small, concave security mirror in one corner, where the elements were condensed and their relations heightened.

With the phrase “Watching Her Feat,” Semmes opens the symbolic floodgates, leaving us to footle around at will until the implications sort themselves out. Is she making fun of the whole artistic enterprise? Is she saying that artists spend their time contemplating their own shit (or their feet/feats) like arrested children? Is this work a send-up of artistic self-absorption and obsession, or an example of it? Can it be both at the same time? Finally, it’s too engaging not to be.

David Levi Strauss