New York

Mary Lum

Frederieke Taylor Gallery

The subject of Mary Lum’s exhibition was urban space and time, and the materials of choice were comic books—cut neatly and precisely into strips, slivers, and squares and collaged onto paper, or rendered in paint on panels or, in a wall installation, around the gallery. Like an urban landscape, the comic is an instrument of compression: In the former, wildly diverse lives and cultures are organized by buildings within blocks—by grids within grids—and in the latter neat rows of squares create a shorthand for movement and the passage of time. Lum shatters the order of both, creating, instead, a sense of vertiginous heterogeneity.

The combination turns out to be breathtaking, full of the movement of time and space collapsing and then opening up again like an accordion. The artist’s theme, according to a printed statement, is “the continual destruction and construction of urban space; the way one thing takes the place of another and the same event happens in many locations.” But these spaces are more than physical: They are metaphorical, psychological, temporal. Here is modernism’s orderly progression upended by Escher’s splendid illogic (Lum is likewise consumed by stairs running in every direction and leading nowhere), perhaps suggesting that there is only so much organizing that a square can do.

The wall painting, Area 116, 2009, features on one side a grouping of blown-up, nearly empty comic cells, with just enough color (and occasional words, in French) left near their borders to suggest that they once were more fully occupied. These cells taper dynamically, diving sideways through space, and jump from one wall to another and into a tangle of curves and stairs and more lines, the most identifiable element being the lower half of a small cartoon duck that, due to effort lines (the marks comic artists use to denote sweat, effort, or surprise), appears to be jumping frantically around within the abstracted spaces. A speech bubble left empty makes manifest the breathlessness of all this constant motion.

Resembling collages, Lum’s paintings on panel are more condensed (except for one, Multiple Cities 5, 2009, which is as spare and dizzying as an open window on a high floor with nothing outside) and filled with the bright, unmodulated colors of comic books. Condition 3, 2007, is a chaotic pile of stairs, floorboards, and grids all rushing this way and that, as in a bad dream; the abstraction here recalls other famous, flattened rooms—Matisse’s red room, van Gogh’s bedroom— although much of it in a rather startling shade of pink.

These qualities of flattened perspective and limited palette have been further worked out in two sets of collages, which offered a calmer counterpoint to the relative frenzy playing out around the room. One set contrasts bits of delicately excised comic-book structures with fragments of photographs, suggesting different kinds of information being abstracted. The other set is made up of quiet painted squares with a few photographic additions—railroad tracks diving beneath the ground, a steep staircase cleaving space in two—demonstrating how little, in the end, is necessary to create architecture.

Emily Hall