Los Angeles

Samara Caughey

Fortunately, art history is written as much, if not more, by artists as by historians, in part because artists are not beholden to fact. To come to terms with the jubilant work in Samara Caughey’s debut solo show—five freestanding sculptures and three wall-hung pieces—a familiarity with the basic discourse of twentieth-century sculpture in the ever-expanding expanded field would be useful, but liberal doses of Emersonian whim, intuitive conjecture, and, hey, fun should aid the fieldwork.

Certainly Eva Hesse is an important historical inspiration for Caughey, but so too are the less-sanctioned, more-wayward activities of Richard Tuttle, Ree Morton, and B. Wurtz. Tuttle’s fearless investigation of materials, Morton’s shocks of color, and Wurtz’s deployment of the mundane readymade—in these artists’ hands such practices remain “formalist” and “materialist” only as long as those particular classifications and ways of thinking are helpful; then they’re jettisoned for a more personal poetics (i.e., magic). As Morton wrote in one of her notebooks: “Myth is the best detergent for a dirty history”—a statement that grows darker, more profound, and less easy the longer it’s considered (is she for a cleaner or dirtier history?).

Caughey’s Envy (all works 2005) is a study of leaning, balance, and attachment in all their literal and metaphoric possibility. A four-foot-high arrangement of milled wooden slats, combined in tripods and other configurations, held together by wire, lime green tape, and felt-bandage wraps in various shades of moss and jade, is poised on the brink of and yet somehow assuredly resisting collapse. With a single branch dipped in kelly green paint and bound with wire to one of its milled big-city cousins, the artist plays on the interaction of the artificial and the natural, each alternately the crutch for or envious of the other’s greener situation. With Envy, Caughey combines different modes, abstracting the domestic as much as domesticating the abstract, allowing sculpture to stand, amused, to the side of geometric presentness, tired psychomimetics, or pop slavishness.

In Hulking and Purple Mantle, Caughey takes to heart master artisan George Nakashima’s lessons of allowing wood to be what it would be. Hulking’s wedge is painted iceberg white and floats on a small phthalo green block; it spouts wires—twisted at one end and draped in strips of white-paint-stiffened fabric—that are simultaneously antennae and sail. The log in Purple Mantle retains its bark on one penside, but except for its bottom edge all bark is painted in lush purple swashes; three nails affix a black slat to the base to support an elegant piece of mouse-gray dried seaweed that curls out to suspend an empty plastic-net produce bag. Caughey avails herself of biomorphic flourishes, but the references invariably slide toward the (Barthesian) obtuse. Is the bag a creature’s nest or a piece of human litter? Is it the informe that crowns nature’s form? What are the questions we should be asking?

Walnut-shell halves, painted coconut shells, string: There’s nothing inherently exotic about any of these things, yet they become strange and referentially rich in Caughey’s work. She allows materials to remain what they are while also spinning off into the imaginary. In Pecking Order, white-painted rope coiled on a stumpy log becomes the very tree rings it hides but also, through proximity and referential rhyming, lends to the elegant stem rising from its center a rope-trick levity. At its top, this rope-become-reed bursts into a snowball-white coconut shell from which a lattice/stamen of hot pink string unfurls.

Various components of Caughey’s hypnotic wall works suggest a lifesaver buoy, a jellyfish, and an aureole. The mobile elements spin and twirl in the air, the inanimate materials beginning a life of their own volition. How refreshing in the current sculptural climate of representational dillydallying and uninterrogated bravado to find an artist serenely questioning whether things can ever remain just what they are and wondering what that would possibly mean.

Bruce Hainley