Sydney

Mikala Dwyer, The Additions and the Subtractions, 2017, mixed media. Installation view. Photo: Mim Stirling. From the series “The Additions and Subtractions,” 2007–.

Mikala Dwyer, The Additions and the Subtractions, 2017, mixed media. Installation view. Photo: Mim Stirling. From the series “The Additions and Subtractions,” 2007–.

Mikala Dwyer

Art Gallery of New South Wales

Mikala Dwyer, The Additions and the Subtractions, 2017, mixed media. Installation view. Photo: Mim Stirling. From the series “The Additions and Subtractions,” 2007–.

The Art Gallery of New South Wales has given Mikala Dwyer license to transform five of its spaces with her eye-catching installations made of every imaginable material—manufactured, found, or handcrafted by the artist. Titled “A shape of thought,” the show reaffirms Dwyer’s tendency to configure thinking as a crossbred, chaotic thing that miraculously hangs together in each installation. The coexistence of contradictory thoughts channeled by painting, sound, video, performance, and especially sculpture is an organizing principle of her art. Her works suspend ontological divisions between primitive and modern worldviews, secular and occult sensibilities, and idealist transcendence and earthbound materialism. At times, this dismantling of categorical hierarchies is inflected by feminist commitments.

Gallery visitors first encounter The Silvering, 2017––a floating sculpture installed high in an atrium––as they take the escalator down to a lower level housing the other works. Attached to a sheet of silver Mylar anchored to the walls are 150 helium-filled balloons made of the same space-age material. The donut-shaped balloons seem to strive for the freedom of lift-off but are literally foiled by their support.

Professing an animistic belief in the agency of objects and materials, Dwyer regularly tempts us to anthropomorphize the entities that populate her installations. We see this in the latest rendition of her series “The Additions and the Subtractions,” begun in 2007. The format is always the same: eclectic sculptural totems arranged in a floor circle, with items added and subtracted for new incarnations. While the circular arrangement of objects recalls the sacred geometries and fetishes of pagan ritual, Dwyer describes the circle as an “ecumenical” system linking disparate sculptures without subsuming their differences. With characteristic verve, the latest work in the series, Divisions and Subtractions, 2017, activates energies between rhyming and dissonant colors, forms, scales, materials, densities, and cultural references. Homemade hanging planters in transparent plastic echo rubber tires roped to the ceiling like children’s swings. Stationed on one side of the tires is a tall hexagonal pyramid in black Plexiglas. On the other side, a stubby arabesque of copper piping rests on a sheet of canary-yellow fabric. Precariously balanced building blocks of purple and maroon Plexiglas stand beside a naively modeled torso crazily paved with multicolored ceramic shards. It sits on a simple metal frame with a cluster of bird ornaments welded to its struts in another evocation of arrested flight. Nearby, stacked slabs of modeling clay form a shaky wall from which roughly thumbed lumps of clay sprout. This sagging, abject structure is a typical Dwyer concoction, one that amps up the materialist side of the modernist family tree. She has a particular talent for imbuing materials with a sense of unruly agency able to elude artistic will.

Dwyer’s interest in feminine cultures informs the installation titled The Letterbox Marys, 2015. In a room saturated with competing elements, twin assemblages include plaster statues of the Virgin Mary such as might be found in a Catholic church. They are encased in Minimalist—style colored Plexiglas boxes set on cubic plinths, suggesting an unholy marriage between traditional piety and modernist secularism. Slots have been cut into these industrially manufactured boxes, as if one might pray to the mother of Christ by mail.

Dwyer’s art expresses an egalitarian and open-minded sensibility in its attempts to build bridges between aesthetics aligned with masculinity and femininity, modern and ancient culture, materialism and metaphysics. But rather than advancing a vision of cosmic harmony, her strange and marvelous installations summon the ghosts of things likely to make modern rationality jumpy.

Toni Ross