“None of the ways that I represent things are straightforward,” Lucy Skaer has said of her work. Indeed, Skaer’s two concurrent New York exhibitions contained prints, sculptures and installations—often rich with earthy, hand-wrought materials—that reminded viewers that images and objects are inherently contingent, their meanings dependent on context and their forms on essential physical properties. Thus, representation is never straightforward.
Shown at Peter Freeman, the series “13.08.13-04.10.13” (2013) comprises 51 lithographs roughly printed by hand from disused plates the British artist recovered from the Guardian newspaper. The prints are impressionistic; faint photographic images rendered in negative emerge through a blur of soft pink, gray and sepia tones, forming a hazy collage of contemporary symbols: men in suits, machine-gun-toting women, a collapsed building, an unidentifiable celebrity posing for the camera.
For American Images (2014), Skaer disinters an entire lost process, as embodied in three limestone boulders she took from quarries outside a small Iowa ghost town once known as “Lithograph City.” The town was created in the early 1900s as a residence for quarry workers excavating the fine-grained limestone widely used in lithography at that time but soon replaced by metal plates. What narratives might have been conveyed through these stones, Skaer seems to ask, had they been excavated before the technology changed?
With two additional sculptures, Skaer reprises a motif from previous work—a beveled-edged “lozenge” shape based largely on the standard form of cut emeralds. Emeralds, like other gems, possess a distinct molecular structure that compels gem cutters to shape them in specific ways; Skaer transposes her lozenge shape onto unexpected materials to see what new associations it compels. An untitled work from 2015 comprises a pile of several broken lozenges of unfired stoneware; elsewhere, 374 lozenges in tenmoku-glazed stoneware—a favorite material of British ceramist Bernard Leach—lay arranged in perfect rows, a variation on Skaer’s My Terracotta Army, my Red Studio, my Amber Room II (the original 2013 iteration of the piece includes 530 stoneware objects).
Skaer’s exhibition at Murray Guy offered a new five-work series. “Sticks & Stones” (2013-15) begins with Sticks &
Stones I, a pair of long, irregular slabs of “sinker mahogany.” The mahogany comes from dense logs that had been harvested in Belize by British colonists. While being floated downriver to a mill, the wood sank to the bottom of the riverbed, where it lay for over a century in alluvial muck. Within each flitch, Skaer embedded objects of varying shapes, sizes and materials, all taken from her studio. These include a block of lithograph stone and a lozenge fragment. Like a puzzle piece, each object fits snugly into a hole cut in the mahogany.
The shapes of the mahogany slabs in Sticks & Stones I are repeated in ceramic for Sticks & Stones II, and again in marble for Sticks & Stones III. The embedded objects in each pair likewise share the same basic shape, but are composed of a wide variety of materials. A hunk of tin studded with coins in Sticks & Stones I is approximated in black ceramic for Sticks & Stones II, then in malachite for the next in the series and so on.
Like a game of telephone played out with materials, forms appear to subtly degrade or mutate with replication. But with Skaer, there is no best, Platonic original. We observe that an artist’s work—and all human production—is one process, in which a single piece is never finished but evolves into the next.
Lucy Skaer’s exhibition “A Boat Used as a Vessel” consisted of three new installations (2009), a fourth from 2008 and a scattering of earlier works, all characterized by an austere beauty and a sense of meaning being withheld. Like the other installations, Fabrication, located in the first room, combined objects and works on paper—here a series of large-scale monotypes hung around an antique wooden table with removable leaves. The prints, pulled from the surface of the inked table, consist of varying, serial-like arrangements of black rectangles. Here and there one can just discern a comma beneath the black, suggesting the repression of language. In the same room an untitled work presented two large-scale watercolors with aluminum leaf, and a half dozen wooden triangles seemingly tossed on the floor before them, like runes. Similar triangles appear in the paintings, along with a group of figures never explained and difficult to read, given the brightness of the white paper support and the reflectiveness of the aluminum leaf.
Further on, the small sculptural group Solid Ground—Liquid to Solid in 85 Years (2006), a group of circular and semicircular painted plaster objects resembling broken tops or fragments of architectural fittings, again arranged on the floor, are in fact Rorschach blot shapes fabricated in three dimensions.
Leviathan Edge features two wall-size multi-medium drawings and a minke whale skeleton on loan from a local natural history museum. Four white partitions with small gaps between them blocked physical access, allowing only glimpses of the artifact. Meticulously composed of small dark squares in graphite embellished with felt-tip-pen curlicues, the accompanying drawings nestle repeating screenprinted images of whale skeletons within segmented and abstract fields. Hovering on the threshold of legibility, the whales come and go as if decomposing and recomposing within their surroundings.
In the final room, The Siege (2008) was bounded on one side by a massive, crescent-shaped cinder-block wall, and featured a spare configuration of antique wooden tables accompanied by the monoprints they produced. In this case, the tabletops had been carved to print zeros and a hand. The installation also included sculptural forms copped from Constantin Brancusi and Paul Nash. A black wooden Bird in Space, for example, was multiplied in two groups—one consisting of around a dozen standing Birds and the other a pile of them stacked, like ammunition. Nash’s painting Landscape from a Dream (1936-38) is cited in another object in the installation—a wooden folding screenlike object with open panels, which felt like an isolated grammatical element. Clearly trading in linguistic syntax, this installation nevertheless demonstrated a resistance to language, at once demanding and confounding interpretative engagement.