New York

Rochelle Goldberg, Corpse Kitty: towards a friendly fatality, 2020, bronze, eye shadow, 19 3⁄4 × 40 1⁄8 × 12 5⁄8".

Rochelle Goldberg, Corpse Kitty: towards a friendly fatality, 2020, bronze, eye shadow, 19 3⁄4 × 40 1⁄8 × 12 5⁄8".

Rochelle Goldberg

Let us remember the Chia Pet. This brand of terra-cotta animal and human figurines contained chia seeds that, with regular watering, would sprout to resemble fur or hair. Its advertising jingle, “Ch-ch-ch-chia!,” played during 1980s cartoons such as The Transformers and M.A.S.K., which were themselves little more than extended commercials for toys that also catered to a fascination with change. To my knowledge, the artist Rochelle Goldberg has never cited the Chia Pet as an influence, but the fact remains that the work for which she first came to prominence appropriated the novelty item’s key elements and turned them into vehicles for philosophical inquiry. Ensembles of steel armatures, chia-laced foam padding, and ceramic sculptures resembling snakes, fish, or pelicans functioned like gardens that would grow or decay over the duration of an exhibition. Like the latter-day projects of Pierre Huyghe, albeit on a less grandiose scale, Goldberg’s practice helped signal what has been called contemporary art’s “ecologization,” wherein the production of static objects gives way to the orchestration of fluctuating environments.

For “Psychomachia” at Miguel Abreu Gallery, Goldberg all but excised her signature chia seeds. Their only remaining traces lay within a rectangular foam floor piece that had previously appeared in “Intralocutors,” her show in the same space three years earlier. Coated in gold foil and retitled Soiled [Resurrected], 2017–20, the work tethered the two exhibitions together into a single continuous narrative inspired by the fifth-century saint Mary of Egypt. A suite of prints hung in sequence across a nearby wall illustrated a version of her story: A dissolute woman from Alexandria, Mary travels to Jerusalem and experiences a religious awakening. She ventures into the desert and survives for many years through foraging. When she dies, a lion witnesses her body levitate seventeen inches off the ground. In “Psychomachia,” Soiled [Resurrected] served as one of several effigies for the saint. Instead of evoking a garden, the chia seeds now represented the rich biome of bacteria, mold, insects, and plant life that takes root in a rotting corpse.

Thus, Goldberg combined art’s recent ecological turn with the “allegorical impulse” that the critic Craig Owens ascribed to postmodernism in the 1980s. Under the operative metaphor of Mary’s corpse, narrative allusions permeated the exhibition’s open-ended arrangements of organic and inorganic substances. Glass bowls held dirt extracted from the Texas desert. Hunks of bread—a reference to the only food Mary brought on her journey—appeared in the form of actual sourdough chunks and as aluminum facsimiles. Goldberg employed bronze for several figurative sculptures of Mary’s deteriorating husk, one of which included a kitten that stood in for the original story’s lion. Typically, bronze is associated with antiquity and eternal value, but Goldberg emphasized its mutability instead. Its base element, copper, popped up throughout the exhibition in the form of scattered US pennies.

Viewers with no appetite or patience for Goldberg’s recondite sampling of Christian hagiography might have nevertheless appreciated the second allegorical motif running throughout “Psychomachia”: that of vanitas, typically associated with Dutch still lifes depicting opulent but ephemeral luxuries. Sculptures of Mary’s face sported sparkling eye shadow, like mortuary cadavers taking a last swipe at vitality. In Halo: even if it’s free, 2020, a cardboard tondo framed a clutch of plucked lilies preserved in bronze powder. Vanitas reminds us that no amount of artifice and adornment can stave off the inevitability of change. Sooner or later, every object made of precious metals will be melted down, bodies will lose their integrity, and, as the example of the Chia Pet readily attests, the allure of novelty will fade.