New York

Alice Mackler, Untitled, 2020, glazed ceramic, 13 3⁄4 × 11 1⁄2 × 8 1⁄4".

Alice Mackler, Untitled, 2020, glazed ceramic, 13 3⁄4 × 11 1⁄2 × 8 1⁄4".

Alice Mackler

In his introduction to a new book on Alice Mackler’s work, curator Matthew Higgs urged viewers “to think of her as a ‘young’ artist who just happens to be in her eighties.” I couldn’t agree more. But the temporal paradoxes hardly end there; she might equally be considered an ancient artist, the survivor of some lost civilization who just happens to live among us today. The belief system underlying the artifacts of this prehistoric culture remains obscure; and the insistent untitled designation of all of Mackler’s works suggests a staunch refusal to initiate outsiders into a body of knowledge held close in a secret society that just might have only one member. A viewer might guess that this society is a matriarchy—the constant refrain of Mackler’s work being female presence, evoked as a head or a figure.

The artist identifies herself as “a painter that does sculpture,” explaining, “I glaze my sculpture the same way I paint on canvas,” but in this show her ceramic sculptures dominated; the paintings, with their linear forms, almost seemed to be studies for possible objects. And yet in the sculptures themselves, Mackler deftly used color both to emphasize and to dissolve physical volumes. Heads and figures appeared as such mainly by fiat. A bulbous, bollard-like form would never have been identified as a head without the three circular indentations that read as eyes (filled with green glaze) and an open mouth (smeared with red). They add up to a rudimentary rendering of the idea of “face,” while surrounding splotches of black become signs for long hair. As simple and effective as this conjuring of an iconic visageness may be, it works in tension with the evident nonrepresentationalism of the overall form. And this indifference to representation is underlined by many details, among them the mottled marks of red, blue, and black that flutter around the figures’ necks, delicately daubed (as far as one can tell) for the sheer pleasure of it.

One ceramic piece presented what seemed to be a mermaid lying on her back and raising her tail fin in the air. In this case, the stippling of the glaze, whose rhythmic repetitions seem to conjure a fishy pattern of scales across the body of the alluring siren, spreads over the circular base from which she rises, as if to disavow any referential intention in favor of a purely decorative function. This ambivalence toward representation seems to operate at every level of Mackler’s work: Its evocative power seems irrepressible, and yet always secondary to a passion for the ornamental. In fact, if the word did not sound vaguely dismissive, I’d insist on the fundamentally decorative nature of these objects—their aspiration to an approachable beauty—by calling them “figurines.”

But what about that feeling I mentioned, that Mackler’s sculptures know more than they’re saying, that they might be attached to some underlying mythos whose content remains unspoken? Maybe all decorative forms, at their core, are reminiscences of society’s most profound, inchoate yearnings. Is Mackler’s true desire for a world made for women alone? In a rare interview, she admitted that in her art a male model would always be transformed into something else: “I can’t tell from a male from a female, look at the shapes, it’s all the same!” Mackler’s work foretells or remembers a utopia where sexual difference subsides in an eternal feminine. Or maybe it just revels in that infinite malleability of form, and of meaning, for which clay is a byword, a material persistence that underlies all its metamorphoses.