Aleana Egan, Meanwhile, 2013, steel, fabric, 9' 10 1/8“ x 11' 6” x 4' 11 1/8".

Aleana Egan, Meanwhile, 2013, steel, fabric, 9' 10 1/8“ x 11' 6” x 4' 11 1/8".

Aleana Egan

Kerlin Gallery

Aleana Egan, Meanwhile, 2013, steel, fabric, 9' 10 1/8“ x 11' 6” x 4' 11 1/8".

A tiny photograph from Aleana Egan’s recent exhibition “The Sensitive Plant” bears the title 13/1 Sunnypark, Ballygunge, Calcutta, India. Circa 1957 (all works 2013). This precise postal address and approximate date offer some basic context for an otherwise puzzling image: a found snapshot, more than half a century old, showing the unrevealing facade of a grand residence and its elegant, well-tended garden. Hanging directly alongside this image was a second such picture, identical in size and format, and broadly corresponding in content. And yet Egan offered only the following description: Untitled, found photograph. In one case, textual clues point to the coordinates of a possible historical backstory. In the other, a deliberate lack of information leaves us only with what is available to the eye: the constrained, low-key formal effects of the photograph itself.

Egan’s pairing of these enigmatic images is typical of her simultaneously allusive and elliptical methods, even if her main preoccupations are more often sculptural than photographic. Her work to date has consistently exhibited a twofold tendency: a desire to draw on cherished references, usually from nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century literature, and a wish to at the same time maintain a strict, and somewhat discomfiting, artistic reticence. In previous exhibitions, Egan directly cited passages from her personal literary heroes, such as Gustave Flaubert and Jean Rhys. In this show, a central allusion was to Percy Bysshe Shelley, whose 1820 poem “The Sensitive Plant,” a lengthy rumination on the transformations of the natural world, provided the exhibition with its almost excessively poetic title. Set against such “sensitive” evocations, nevertheless, was the arrestingly utilitarian reality of the sculptures themselves. Egan privileges practical, unadorned materials—steel, cardboard, wire, polyester filler, plain fabrics—which she combines in suggestive but largely inscrutable configurations. Meanwhile, for example, reflects Egan’s on- going interest in constructing three-dimensional steel “drawings”: It resembles a simple architectural outline, but it is a stable metal structure on a floor-to-ceiling scale, draped with a large, pale-gray blanket that undemonstratively asserts the sturdy reality of these sculpturally sketched lines.

Egan’s sculptures don’t overtly signal the relevance of literary sources. Here and there (as in the first of the photographs mentioned above), a title will gesture toward speculative worlds beyond what is immediately present. The Harbour Is Good Company, for example, is a raised steel box, loosely belted with a baby-blue rope and cut open at one side to reveal a bundle of bulging linen. The title has the ring of a quoted reference, but Egan leaves her obscure container unmoored in any particular harbor of meaning. Instead, she proposes that these accumulated, adapted things—in these singular situations of unaccustomed combination—are themselves the sensitive aftereffects of her solitary reading. Her sculptures, thus conceived, arise out of a two-part process of translation. The shared meanings of canonical texts are first altered in the unsteady drift of subjective consciousness; these interior impressions are then tested against the raw materials of everyday external reality. A third shift is, of course, inevitable, as these mysterious, personal, physical forms begin to make their mark on our own anxiously captivated minds.

Declan Long