Stark fluorescent lights and vast white walls magnify the uncanniness of the domestic motifs that populate the sparse landscape of “you you you,” a retrospective of work by Canadian artist Liz Magor at the Migros Museum für Gegenwartskunst. At one end stands One Bedroom Apartment (1998), a group of household items and furniture pieces clustered together, as if ready for a move. Elsewhere, in Formal I and Formal II (both 2012), two chairs are draped with garment bags cast in silicone rubber. These various constructions seem oddly melancholic, the apartment installation suggesting the belongings of someone in a transitional state and the artificial formal-wear bags, for me, evoking themes of Death of a Salesman, Arthur Miller’s play about the professional ambitions of a delusional ordinary man.
The exhibition assembles a diverse assortment of Magor’s works dating from 1989 to the present in a single, open-plan gallery. With sculptures of chairs, stained blankets, towels, and other everyday objects, many placed directly on the floor, the overall installation suggests the contents of a partially raided store, or even a postapocalyptic scenario where only the barest remains of consumer culture are left.
What seem to be familiar objects presented as readymades are in fact casts. From certain angles, three floor-bound works from the series “Double Cabinet” (2001) appear to be merely stacks of towels or cable-knit sweaters. But from others, you see that the textiles (which are made from polymerized gypsum) are stiff, hollow constructions, their insides filled with stores of gin, beer, chewing gum, lighters, cigarettes. Similar openings appear in many of Magor’s sculptures. Tweed (Kidney), 2008, is a hard sculpture of a folded, multicolored coat that bears a slit just large enough for the tequila bottle inserted into it.
For the most part, the works on display are recognizable examples of Magor’s signature approach, but the oldest piece on view, Field Work (1989), looks quite different. It consists of a selection of black-and-white snapshots from the late 1960s showing Magor’s white friends wearing moccasins and feathered headdresses while fishing, sunbathing, or sitting around an open fire. When Magor first displayed the photographs as an innocent document of hippie hedonism, she was strongly criticized for her cultural appropriation, since the work (which she titled after Edward Curtis’s photogravure portraits of Native Americans from the late ’70s) seemed to trivialize indigenous traditions. After this incident, Magor shifted her tactics of appropriation toward sculpture and installation. Her willingness to reckon with past follies is rare. Furthermore, displaying Field Work alongside her subsequent pieces shows the vitality and adaptability of her conceptual framework. The unsettling result locates cultural appropriation among the normalizing fantasies of domestic life.
Images of sleep and its material articles (such as beds, sheets and sleeping bags) densely populate Liz Magor’s oeuvre. Over the past 40 years, she has explored her subject extensively through photography, installation and sculpture that involves rubber or polymer gypsum casting processes. Her most recent production employs old blankets found at thrift stores and asks of this “raw material” a minimum of transmutation. Newly cleaned, neatly folded and draped over hangers of different dimensions, the blankets were irregularly spaced along one wall of the gallery, evoking garments or pairs and groups of individuals.
The label on Kenwood (salmon)—all works 2011—declares it “Pure Virgin Wool,” but that seems to contradict the artificial texture of its fabric. As with most of these works, Kenwood (salmon) relies on an interplay of observation and memory: its antique salmon hue and compositional detailing engage the viewer in the present moment while simultaneously evoking the past. The blanket’s worn bottom border has been replaced with a hard gypsum cast—a vestige from Magor’s sculptural practice—that appears as an uncanny duplicate of the original satin, complete with creases, bunches and sewing-machine punctures.
The fiery red and orange label of Maple Leaf has been stitched on inside out so that it can’t be read. Small stained areas of bright red over light blue penetrate this blanket’s cream-colored wool. Visible beneath its top layer on the left side are folds of dull pink synthetic satin and layers of slightly iridescent blue silk ornamented with a flower and vine pattern. Although probably coarse and inexpensive, this elaborately patterned silk seems extravagant and beauteous when seen against the drabber, everyday wool. As in many of Magor’s works, the hand of the artist can be difficult to identify at first. Against the pink, blue and yellow plaid pattern of Eatonia, thread is stitched in colors that do not match the wool beneath it and in places where, in fact, there may have been no holes to mend. Moth-proofed shares the same background color as many of these blankets, an elusive or idealized Caucasian “skin tone.” These are subtle works, existing somewhere between the conditions of home and homelessness.
Magor has said she thinks of the blankets as drawings when folded and as paintings when unfolded. Hudson’s Bay Double, an unfolded 10-foot-long monochrome, initially appears black but really is an impossibly deep blue—like an Ad Reinhardt that the eyes need time to adjust to. Its moth-eaten holes have been filled or edged with a pure silver, moltenlike polarized gypsum, arrested in their chance pattern as if they had been subjected to a surreal cauterizing process. In this work, the “fixing” of damage is beautifully transformative.
Photo: Liz Magor: Eatonia, 2011, wood, fabric, metal and thread, 57 by 241⁄2 by 21⁄4 inches; at Susan Hobbs.