Gretchen Faust

This was Gretchen Faust’s first exhibition anywhere since 1994, and, depending on your point of view, it could represent either the artist’s decline into terminal irrelevance or her accession to a new level of maturity and concentration. Faust actually began exhibiting in the early ’80s, but her work seemed to take off around 1989, when she became one of the first young artists in New York to successfully reinvestigate the aesthetics of the early ’70s, gaining attention for a series of severe yet elegantly formal works somewhere between sculpture and performance—among the best known being the “Wall Tattoos,” 1987–, which consist of enigmatic texts inscribed with the point of an ice pick: messages at once violent and elusive. Such works elicited as much reproof as enthusiasm, however: “All about fetishism . . . narcissistically insulated and elitist” was one verdict. Perhaps the fact that Faust was also active as a critic contributed to the sense that she should not only dish it out but take it too.

For whatever reason, that all came to a sudden stop. Faust’s withdrawal from the art scene has clearly not meant a retreat from artmaking, though it has obviously meant a good deal of rethinking; her new work does not bear much obvious resemblance to what she was doing ten years ago. This exhibition included seventeen small works: abstract cutouts in white paper laid over blue and set in heavy (but not elaborate) found wooden frames. Think of those snowflake forms that children make by folding and cutting paper and you’ll have the basic idea. The cutouts Faust has been making are far more elaborate and minutely detailed than any your kids are likely to try, but if that were the only difference one would be hard put to think of Faust as anything more than a hobbyist. In fact there is a formal richness to these inventions that belies their modest means. Though the size of a face or a hand, they contain worlds within worlds. The only things in contemporary art to which I can directly compare them would be Bruce Conner’s inkblot drawings.

Compositionally, the works are wonderfully active, in part because of Faust’s canny way of synthesizing symmetry and asymmetry. Each has a single vertical fold, like a spine; other folds radiate from a few nodal points along this central one, and the cuts Faust has made in the paper result in, typically, two or three intricate wheel-like patterns with as many as eight axes each—finally, one thinks more of a cathedral’s rose window than of a snowflake. Scattered among these symmetrical mandala-like figures are simpler linear motifs that seem to function as boundary lines of a sort, separating out their fields of compositional influence. This kind of cut is symmetrical across one fold but can be askew in relation to the work as a whole. Although these lines seem to function as mere accents, they give the works an underlying rhythmic variability, a sort of dynamism that cuts across the recurrent pulse implied by the circular forms. And this, in turn, draws the viewer into a sustained viewing that allows these small, unassuming works to take on serious weight and scale. Far from being the self-indulgent pastime they might appear, these works actually take Faust’s austere aesthetic to a new pitch of intensity.

Barry Schwabsky