Underscoring the natural origins of many decorative motifs, much of Virgil Marti’s past work has channeled organic energies into installations of ornamental excess. By contrast, his recent exhibition was relatively subdued, even funereal, and seemed to suggest that the impulse to decorate often accompanies loss and mourning. This theme was announced by Memorial Garden (2008), a large wallpapered partition that confronted viewers as they entered the gallery. The wallpaper repeats and refracts a photograph of a gravesite festooned with artificial flowers, small stuffed animals and a blue wreath whose dangling ribbons stitch the entire pattern together. Cleverly, Marti filled all the negative spaces with dark brown flocking, a velvety material common in Victorian wall treatments that here suggested plots of freshly turned soil.
Beyond this wall, one encountered a spare display of two new sculptures in the main room. Arrangement in Black and Blue and A Pot of Paint (both 2010) resemble large, circular banquettes, their central backrests radiating numerous seat cushions skirted with fringe. As its Whistlerian title suggests, Arrangement in Black and Blue is expertly upholstered in mostly dark fabrics, including an indigo satin and brown faux fur. Its companion, by contrast, is decked out in loud floral chintz, platinum pleather and other, pink and peach materials. While these colors and patterns seem gender-specific, one needed the press release to learn that Marti conceived them as portraits of his parents. But as many other artists have demonstrated, the human body is often invoked by domestic furniture. Indeed, one yearned to get comfortable on the inviting cushions, the better to contemplate Austrian Swag (2009), another customized wallpaper, which surrounded the viewer with the convincing illusion of loosely gathered fabric. Its wraparound image of satiny white drapery lent the room a hushed and slightly ghoulish atmosphere; each 4-foot-wide segment vaguely resembled the interior lining of a coffin.

Time-tested vanitas motifs appeared in the remaining components of the show. For Object Relations (2010), an installation in the back room, Marti created three plump, fur-covered, heavily fringed ottomans. Each a different size, they were clustered together like a family unit; the largest was pierced by a chrome-plated branch that doubled as a candelabra. Huddled under burning candles held aloft and dripping wax, the trio of tuffets seemed engaged in an obscure ritual. Equally haunting were eight ornate “mirrors” hung on the walls in both rooms. Although carved from weathered plywood, they gained a rococo elegance from scrolled silhouettes and chrome plating in various pastel colors, including shimmering shades of citron, lavender and powder blue. Up close, one realized that they produced no legible reflections. Reduced to a dim blur, the viewer became a ghostly protagonist in Marti’s well-appointed mise-en-scène.

Photo: View of Virgil Marti’s exhibition, showing (on walls) Austrian Swag, 2009, with (left to right) Arrangement in Black and Blue and A Pot of Paint, both 2010; at Elizabeth Dee.