View of “Zoë Paul: Solitude and Village,” 2016. From left: <>, 2016; au, 2016; Untitled, 2016.

View of “Zoë Paul: Solitude and Village,” 2016. From left: <>, 2016; au, 2016; Untitled, 2016.

Zoë Paul

The Breeder

View of “Zoë Paul: Solitude and Village,” 2016. From left: &lt;&gt;, 2016; au, 2016; Untitled, 2016.

Zoë Paul’s solo exhibition “Solitude and Village” embodied a harmonious universe where the divine resides within the domestic, the individual alongside the collective. Like a cross between a cult temple and a midcentury living room, the space was arrayed with seven disembodied clay heads supported by architectural platforms, the walls covered in frescoes of giant nudes engaging in sexual acts or relaxing in solitary poses, each painted in expressive strokes of natural clay and whitewash. The stylized sculptures recalled Modern Primitivism; the arrangement of the irregularly shaped plinths, topped with decorative floor tiles, invoked a syncopated jazz rhythm. Marred by cracks as if ancient relics, the male faces had frozen expressions, their mouths open as if in midsentence.

Paul makes weavings using discarded, often rusted, refrigerator shelves as warps, which she forages from around the island of Kíthira, where she spent much of her childhood, and with yarn salvaged from deconstructed traditional Greek blankets. Some of these abstract compositions are based on the allegorical hand gestures of Byzantine and Catholic saints attesting to the Incarnation—the joining of divine and human natures found in the body of Jesus Christ. Three of the sculptural works—&, iiii, and <> (all works 2016)—were placed on the frescoed walls like religious icons; these recalled Abstract Expressionist paintings, their dazzling shocks of color and voluptuous textures provoking a visual throb that induced a hypnotic state of mind.

Suspended in the stark white room below were two ethereal screens, Drop It Like It’s Hot and Suppliant Branches at My Knees, adorned by generous female figures that recalled archetypal fertility symbols, their features as distorted and elegant as a Venus of Lespugue reinterpreted by Picasso. The first woman squats down in the dance move referred to in the title, taken from Snoop Dogg’s 2004 hit, the eternal badonkadonk defined in pink outlines that echo the glow of the neon tubes highlighting the cusp of the wall and floor upstairs. The title of the second invokes the Argive mothers in Euripides’s play The Suppliants, who beg for the bodies of their seven warrior sons—perhaps the men whose heads are portrayed in clay upstairs. The power of these women is their appeal to instinct and emotion, the very things maligned, feared, and suppressed by men. Like ancient artifacts, the compositions have missing parts, gaps incorporated into the fabric of the image. The spherical clay beads are formed one by one and fired by the artist, then strung into images like mosaics. They conjure the ritual of their creation, the movements of the hands that shaped them, as a palpable part of their materiality.

Inspired by the beaded curtains that veil the thresholds of Greek village homes—creating a boundary that is permeable, a privacy not closed to engagement and ventilation—the diaphanous partitions resembled pixelated digital screens, delineating an intimate spatial field that seemed to separate private from public around a rectangular sort of baptismal font, the only other object in the room: actually a discarded household sink turned religious altar with a misty puddle of water and gold coins inscribed with the artist’s name, meaning life, and the word light in Greek. The objects in Paul’s personal cosmology are conductors of a spiritual energy derived from their previous histories—ordinary materials rendered sacred in their value to human survival. Thus the show fused modern and ancient forms, high art and handicraft, parallel times and spaces into a moment that expressed how everything in the universe is inextricably linked—in the same way that all religions and creation myths comprise universal elements, ultimately conveying our common origins.

Yet this interweaving of the sacred with the rituals of human life, imbuing the homely with holiness, was not the whole story. The tragic, masklike heads on the verge of protest, the orgies on the walls, the conflict between feminine and masculine, the religious signs obscured by bold chromatic slashes, all spoke of an unrest ready to break out. The silent, oracular voices of these objects seemed to suggest that we have lost essential primeval connections in the wake of the Industrial Revolution, which has uprooted the communal fabric of society. In the end, solitude goes hand in hand with the village: We need the sustenance of seclusion to contribute to the collective.

Cathryn Drake