New York

Petah Coyne

Galerie Lelong / Julie Saul Gallery

There is something exquisitely tacky about Petah Coyne's latest work. Made with beads, ribbons and bows, flowers, diminutive yard-trash statuettes, and fake and stuffed birds, all covered with gallons of melted wax, her sculpture runs distinctly counter to the sensibilities of viewers who may have grown accustomed to the slickness of Miesian modernism, post-Minimalism, and photoconceptualism.

Coyne's frame of reference is decidedly Victorian: decorative, excessive, and funereal. Her last major body of sculpture employed miles of hair, both human and animal, twisting up and down the gallery wall. The work here likewise honors the ethic of excess bordering on horror vacui. “White Rain,” at Galerie Lelong, included thirteen sculptures whose components were sometimes hard to identify without the aid of the works' subtitles. The opaque wax encrusting the looming canopy of Untitled #1044S-01 (two peacocks on a bird stand), 2001, for instance, obscured the drooping peacock feathers and fake birds nestled in its depths. Untitled #1056S-01 (Melting Mary), 2001, a pool of wax poured over a Virgin Mary figurine and fanning out on the floor, offered only glimpses of choked plants, flowers, and snuffed-out candles. Untitled #945S-01 (Chinese Landscape), 1992-2001, a formidable wall encasing a veiled statuette and covered with wax soaked tassels, provided a creepy specter of preservation, while the campy Untitled #989S-01 (Miss Scarlet), 1999–2000, ranked as the gaudiest of the group: a crush of beads, candles, bows, and leaves coated with the ubiquitous white wax.

Although mass-produced items are a frequent ingredient in her work, Coyne's iconography is strictly antique, conjuring images of heavily draped parlors, Pre-Raphaelite Ophelias. and Victorian widows wrapped in yards of handmade lace. Her work tests the boundaries of taste not only by incorporating stock mourning images but by crowding them into compositions of suffocating sentimentality. Coyne's aesthetic is the polar opposite of Zen minimalism, in which the singular form is isolated for contemplation.

Desoite the nineteenth-century tone of Coyne's sculpture, the title of the Galerie Lelong show lent her work a much more contemporary air, perhaps accidentally. “White Rain” is a twist on the “black rain,” precipitation polluted by radioactive soot, that fell on the destroyed city of Hiroshima in 1945. In the aftermath of September 11, Coyne's notion of obscuring objects with white matter becomes something different: a chilling reminder of the chalky dust and ash that covered survivors of the attack and blanketed New York's Financial District with several inches of “snow.”

The black-and-white photographs on view at Julie Saul were by and large a lighter group of works. Untitled #1017P-01 (The Debs, Raphaelite Feet Dancing), 2001, offered fuzzy visions of bare feet on tiptoe, while Untitled #1039P-01 (Bridal Series), 2001, served as a kind of Victorianized Muybridge study: a glimpse of female flesh in graceful motion. Here again, however, the show's title hinted at something darker: “Spring Snow” was cribbed from a novel by Yukio Mishima that ends with the death of its young hero. One of the two sculptures on view, Untitled/black #856S-96/97, 1997, was saturated with black rather than white wax, perhaps more pointedly suggesting Hiroshima's toxic rain.

Despite the predominance of black and white in these exhibitions, Coyne's true subject seems to be gray—more specifically, the gray area between “light” images and death, a territory that shrinks when mortality is to be acknowledged and confronted. Her work suggests that the aesthetics of celebration and mourning tend to blur together—reminding us that in the contemporary world, we make sense of life and death in any way, in any language, we can.

Martha Schwendener