New York

Danica Phelps


Danica Phelps’s fifth solo show at this gallery marked a watershed moment in her career. Although Phelps has blended art and autobiography for the past decade, her new work is more ambiguous, selective, and, at times, abstract. Take her previous two exhibitions here as points of departure: For 2003’s “Integrating Sex into Everyday Life,” the artist recounted her sexual awakening as a lesbian; in 2005’s “Wake,” she detailed her daily routine of waking up in the morning. Both of these shows featured works on paper that—bearing handwritten itemized lists and painted stripes, which represent dollars (red for spent, green for earned, gray for owed)—meticulously document her finances. For this most recent show, “Material Recovery,” Phelps continued to use conceptual schemas, but presented her life not in rigorous detail but as filtered through a hazy sense of time, space, and language. In the work shown in the second gallery, she made the personal references quite oblique, offering a number of panels displaying her signature stripes—the links between her art and life—produced factory-style.

Only one “stripe list” appeared in the show, as if it were the final page of a book. “I made my last list on January 24, 2007. I found it made me too sad to look back on my life at that point and reflect on it in such detail,” Phelps noted in the press release. Out of trash culled from her studio, the artist sculpted or cut all the letters written on that final list, then dispersed them among three new sculptural works. The fragile letters wavered on cardboard strips stuck in glass bottles in a corner of the gallery and hung from the ceiling in a cluster, like a jumble of musical notes. The rest of the letters composed two mawkish sentences on one wall: IT MADE ME TOO SAD TO WRITE DOWN EVERY FIGHT WE HAD AND MAYBE IF I DON’T WRITE IT DOWN MAYBE IT WILL CHANGE. These suggest that the primary motivation behind Phelps’s artistic transition was a waning relationship, but with whom or what was unclear.

It’s possible that Phelps’s latest offering presented less a turning point than new approaches to her tried-and-tested subject: herself. Some works in the exhibition document her travels earlier this year to India, where she underwent in vitro fertilization. Covering the walls of the first gallery were delicate, disorienting drawings and prints—overlapping portrayals of hospitals, mogul-minature-like scenes, floral landscapes—without an ounce of text. Collectively titled IVF in India, 2008, these long scroll drawings snaked into the second gallery, in which brown stripes (a mixture of red, green, and gray, her typical stripe colors) were everywhere. A team of assistants worked with Phelps to paint and affix these paper stripes to three wood panels, which served as examples of what visitors could custom-order from Phelps for fifteen cents per stripe (the minimum order being fifty thousand stripes). The results are small yet absorbing abstractions that, while intriguing for their formal qualities alone, also shift the artist’s work into more Warholian terrain. But despite Phelps’s wry managerial stance, her new paintings are layered with meaning; they are a compendium of the past decade of her art.

I left the show wanting more, perhaps because the voyeuristic pleasure of examining the daily details of Phelps’s life was now unachievable. However, the register of privacy in this show felt more realistic than in her previous works, which tend to bare all and spare none. A feeling that one might need to see her earlier art to understand this transition also lingered. Even so, the exhibition demonstrates that Phelps is not concerned with the small details anymore; her new work underscores a condition that many of us face when watersheds occur: keeping busy.

Lauren O’Neill-Butler