Sveta Mordovskaya, Matrjoschka III, 2018, ceramic, toys, bobby pins, 4 3⁄8 × 8 5⁄8 × 5 1⁄2".

Sveta Mordovskaya, Matrjoschka III, 2018, ceramic, toys, bobby pins, 4 3⁄8 × 8 5⁄8 × 5 1⁄2".

Sveta Mordovskaya

What is there is not quite what we see. “Suckly Eye,” the peculiar phrase that Sveta Mordovskaya coined for the title of her recent show, encapsulates her creative practice: She conceives of language, like the materials out of which she makes her art, as malleable and amenable to permutation. The neologism suckly is a portmanteau of the idiomatic expression “That sucks,” or the derived adjective sucky, with the verbs to suck and to suckle, and suggests that bodily visual pleasure includes an admixture of aggressive desire. The monstrosity of a single eye thus becomes associated with forms of explicitly physical contact with sexual overtones, while sucking and suckling underscore a process of taking and giving: One body fills up while another empties out.

In this exhibition, a similar interdependence was suggested by references to Russian matrjoschka dolls: sets of nested hollow figures containing a series of smaller and smaller replicas. In Mordovskaya’s trio of sculptures Matrjoschka I–III (all works 2018), which were set on white pedestals at eye level, three groups of figurines stand on unglazed black ceramic mounds that look squishy rather than firm: Made of disks of raw, hand-molded clay, they recall stacked pancakes. Set upon them are the kinds of fabulous creatures that could capture a child’s exuberant imagination. Mordovskaya’s dolls are not functional matryoshkas, however—though an anime-style robot wears the top half of one as a kind of helmet. And the mirrors with which the Russian-born, Vienna-based artist equipped most of these figurines are not held outward, confronting the viewer with her own image. Rather, they are turned toward, or against, the characters themselves. The fragile-looking figures are both lacerated and sealed off by the mirrors for a bracing effect that is comically touching and brutal at once.

Mordovskaya often works in series. At last year’s Liste Art Fair in Basel, for instance, she presented headgear made from various materials on wire supports (Hut [Hat] I–III, 2016). Despite their air of anthropomorphism, these works refuse to engage the viewer, avoiding eye contact beneath their wide brims. The same year at Kunsthaus Glarus in Switzerland, she showed a group of hut-like constructions, including Kommunara 5 and Das Mädchen aus gehobener Gesellschaft (The Girl from High Society), both 2017, which are both less habitable shelters than interiors exposed: spaces at once open and delimited by materials solid and impermeable as well as by those translucent and corporeal.

The artist’s interest in depleted yet opaque bodies resurfaced in this show in a new transmutation, in the boxlike objects Stomach sounds, Uncontrolled moment, and Not titled yet I and II. Their basic shape was narrow and rectangular, with neat outlines. Mordovskaya had lined them with various fabrics. Some of them featured a sphereinserted between two layers of fabric—whether it was about to slip out or was shrinking from scrutiny was up to the beholder. Set on the floor and close to a wall, the boxes were suspended between embodiment and pictorial flatness.

In the show’s last room, a hemisphere made of compressed straw projected from the wall. Born from an egg seemed literally ready to jump out. Five smaller spherical objects of varying size, each marked with a spot of color or a hole, were embedded in the bulging straw pillow: Were these eyes that had made their nests here and sprung open, or were they one-eyed eggs? Meanwhile, the straw body with these smaller round objects grafted onto it had the appearance of a much larger eye, or a swelling breast. Looking at the straw, one could almost feel the body heat of a brooding parent animal—whatever was hatching here would not reveal itself at once. Born from an egg thus revisited the wordplay of “Suckly Eye,” adding yet another twist to its enigmatic implications.

Maja Naef