Navigating Judy Pfaff’s exhibitions is like moving through jungle chaos. Multisized assemblages converge into installations that sometimes consume entire rooms. Working without premeditation, Pfaff creates forms that seem as organic as bird’s nests. When asked whether he worked from nature, Jackson Pollock famously replied, “I am nature.” Pfaff’s new work seems a contemporary riposte to Pollock’s statement. Combining intuitive energy with formal rigor, she challenges Pollock’s scale in three dimensions, posing a feminist response to his claim.
In “Second Nature” at Zoubok and “Run Amok” at Howard, steel, plexiglass, blown glass, pigmented fiberglass, electric lights, melted plastic, paper honeycomb, Japanese lanterns, pigmented expanded foam, acrylic, encaustic, resin, tar, leaves, branches and deer antlers comprise the list of materials used in the 50-plus pieces, made mostly during the last year. Overwhelming at first, these riotous assemblages slowly, organically cohered into a complementary dynamic of two very different visions.
For the sculptures in “Second Nature,” Pfaff makes radically different materials flow seamlessly together through spontaneous micro-level decisions. Belle Starr/Blue Duck (2014), at approximately 10 by 11 by 2 feet, looks like encrustations washed ashore at a Fukushima beach but is actually made of pigmented expanded foam, twisted paper lanterns and jumbles of paper honeycomb. Hanging Judge (2014) is a massive tumbleweed-like structure that dominated the room, filling the space between floor and ceiling. Resembling a bunch of dried twisted vines and leaves hacked from Jack’s beanstalk, it is really driftwood among thick metal rods, astonishingly forged to appear to have grown naturally.
Illuminating Pfaff’s intent in this forest of forms were walls collaged with dense tapestries of photos in muted colors, upon which hung drawings in silver-leafed frames. The pictures catalogue a range of fragmented flora, fauna and organic forms, a Teutonic combination of Blossfeldt, Kiefer and Richter. In their many depictions of blooming and destruction, these displays were both ecstatic and sad, a last-gasp fecund explosion creating an elegy for a dying world.
The melancholy decay evoked by the earth-toned organic abstraction throughout “Second Nature” was starkly different from the mood of “Run Amok,” which was filled with bright color, constructivist geometry and glowing lights. Among the acid greens, DayGlo reds, cold blues and hypnotic concentric circles, new themes emerged. Here was a future techno-nature seemingly overrun by the mutations it engineered. There is a Field, I Will Meet You There (Rumi), 2014, was suspended from the ceiling, resembling islands floating on air. Solidified gray foam engulfed various pieces of glowing Lucite curves. Elsewhere, several works composed of intertwined brightly colored plastic could have been spawned by an irradiated recycling station.
Pfaff’s wild prodigious creativity has never been cowed by refined minimalist sensibilities, and she has always rejected preconceived form in art-making. Pfaff has influenced at least two generations of artists, from Jessica Stockholder to Sarah Sze, arguably inspired Frank Stella’s three-dimensional “exotic bird” paintings in the late ’70s, and encouraged Al Held, mentor and lifelong friend, to become even more complex in his work. In both shows, new ideas about the inevitability of decay and uncontrollable mutation have tempered her irrepressible exuberance with a spirit of mortality, both the earth’s and her own.