View of “Mai-Thu Perret,” 2011.

View of “Mai-Thu Perret,” 2011.

Mai-Thu Perret

Aargauer Kunsthaus

View of “Mai-Thu Perret,” 2011.

Utopias—imaginary, historical, political, emotional—are often mentioned in the conversations that swirl around Mai-Thu Perret’s multifarious oeuvre, yet there is a subtle dystopian fever to her project. Take the Geneva-based artist’s more than decadelong work The Crystal Frontier, 1998–, a body of writings describing a fictive women’s commune in the New Mexico desert, where the authoritarian strictures of patriarchal urban capitalism have been shrugged off like so many old robes. The satirical potential of the subject, focused as it is on a decidedly outdated feminist model of society, is clear. But Perret’s empathy and strange ambiguity, not to mention her writerly skill, mostly carry it above such risky ground. This is lucky, as the literary project pervades her materially discursive works—either explicitly in text pieces or implicitly in mannequin-like dolls that suggest her characters’ lithe, jeans-clad forms and in evocative ceramics that are supposedly the fruit of the commune’s labors.

“The group does not tire like individuals do. Together we are stronger, and take faith in each other’s faith, even though our own is drained away. I tried to explain this to Beatrice but she said exhaustion is the natural course of any human endeavor, and once you are spent and have run your course you should disappear into the desert and die.” This excerpt from The Crystal Frontier runs hauntingly across cold, geometrical wallpaper on one of the walls at the Aargauer Kunsthaus, where Perret’s largest survey to date, “The Adding Machine,” filled the museum’s rooms with her clear-pitched, reference-laden, often antiseptically clean art productions. The text’s darkness reverberated weirdly against the other works in the show, which included small geometric paintings on wood that married Constructivism to Indian tantric painting to neo-geo stylings; a mandala-like neon called Harmonium, 2007, an allusion to the mystical abstract painter Hilma af Klint; a huge, Surrealist-tinged teapot (Little Planetary Harmony, 2006) with a petite painting exhibition inside; a couple of not-quite-successful videos that referred to the English Renaissance composer John Dowland and the Polish avant-garde artist Katarzyna Kobro; and The Adding Machine, 2011, a cheery model of a Teotihuacán jaguar, a Mexican archaeological artifact, its original stone rendered here in light polyurethane foam.

The jaguar’s title (and the exhibition’s) was gleaned from William S. Burroughs, reminding us of his technique of textual collage (which, of course, goes back to the early Zurich Dadaists). It is an admission of Perret’s magpie production, which only gains coherency in its dizzying accumulation. Yet her industrious willingness to float among materials, referents, and styles has an edge of darkness to it. Likewise, her commune’s “hypothetical production” suggests the fatalistic double quotes that seem to hover around her artworks, which in their sheer diversity appear like scientific simulacra or artificial conveyors of the original forms and politics they once embodied. One might take this as a feminist declaration, but I somehow doubt this is Perret’s intended gesture. What are her intentions, then? Her clinical reticence makes it difficult to parse but may also obviate the need for further explanation, amounting to a kind of authenticity of its own. As I circled the exhibition, feeling its humor and reserve, I kept returning to the idea of community (countercultural or otherwise) as embodied by her fluency in so many artistic vocabularies, each material and style a kind of character or citizen of the world—or of her created world, at least.

Quinn Latimer