“Art is the path of the creator to his work,” New Englander Ralph Waldo Emerson declared in “The Poet,” his 1844 essay on writing and artistry. This focus not on finished artworks but on process and discovery seems especially pertinent for New York-based transplanted New Englander Sarah Sze. For much of August, Sze set up shop in Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, transforming the space into an ad hoc studio. She constructed sculptures and assemblages from sundry common materials in situ, patiently thinking and teasing these artworks into being. The resultant exhibition—Sze’s first New York gallery show since her acclaimed installation in the U.S. pavilion at the 2013 Venice Biennale—abounded with material poetry, and small details were often riveting and magical.
With Sunset Hanging (Fragment Series)—all works 2015—a torn scrap of a digitally printed photograph showing an orange sunset hangs from a thin stainless-steel pipe. Beside it is a gossamer spray of multicolored threads and strands of dried paint. The work seems disheveled, even wrecked—mere scraps and tatters—but also lovely. The large Second Studio (Fragment Series) features, among numerous components, dried blue paint strips hanging from stainless steel scaffolding and irregular pieces of colorful photographic prints flowing across the floor. Sunset Standing (Fragment Series), an upright stainless-steel contraption displaying hanging photographs of a sunset and night sky, a piece of dried blue paint, and two stones, is an ultra-condensed version of earth and sky. While Sze has long been a painterly sculptor, abundantly employing color and gesture in three-dimensional works, here she was even more so. In addition to the paint pieces mentioned above, two large sheets of dried white acrylic hung from wood bars near the ceiling (part of Sze’s elaborate overhead construction for lighting), turning paint into a tactile, sculptural material.
All of these works were downstairs. They belong to Sze’s ongoing “Fragment Series” and were in dialogue with one another in a way that suggested a single, room-filling installation. Many of them suggested both detonated paintings and cosmic debris.
Nature and its representations coursed through the show. The works on view convey wonderment and awe as well as raw trepidation, connecting with Romantic conceptions of the sublime. They also carry intimations of ecological mayhem. Everything crystallized in a work shown upstairs: Measuring Stick, a tabletop universe consisting of an array of items, including mirrors, sand, toilet paper, aluminum foil, grass and a bottle of water. Small video projections show a running cheetah, bullets making objects explode and the real-time distance between Earth and the ever-receding Voyager spacecraft. It’s a bedazzling sculpture, one that encapsulates density and vastness, creation and destruction.
The central theme of Sarah Sze’s second solo exhibition at Victoria Miro was experimentation. Sze, who will represent the U.S. at the 2013 Venice Biennale, staged a series of encounters between scientific inquiry and the artistic process, presenting her signature site-specific installations in which everyday items of negligible consumer value amass and proliferate.
All five works in the downstairs gallery were “models for” some type of object. Model for a Print (all works 2012) brings to mind at once a laboratory, a construction site and an artist’s studio. On the wall, a photograph of nighttime snowfall, which could easily be read as an astronomical vista, is juxtaposed with a print. The latter sits face down on a tabletop extending horizontally from the wall below the photo; one corner curls up as if the print were in the process of being made, revealing what looks like a lunar landscape.
More displacements and disorientations of size and scale appear in Model for a Weather Vane. Here, a large rock, resting on a wooden base, supports a metal rod with multiple arms. Connected to the appendages are a cactus, a box of toothpicks, an apple and a carpenter’s level, to name only a few of the items. The rock suggests the movement of tectonic plates, while the cactus is a tiny token of the biosphere. The toothpicks could be thought of as a potential material for architectural construction. The light from a desk lamp affixed to the wall evokes the sun, and, on the floor, a small grouping of charcoal crayons serves as a cairn marking some unknown site.
Alone in the darkened gallery upstairs, Pendulum was the largest and most complex work in the show, its circular sweep conjuring a place for social assembly. Arranged on a series of supports-tallest at the outer rim of the circle-were many of Sze’s more familiar objects: stepladders and electric fans, desk lamps and drinking glasses, photographs of natural vistas and rocks wound with string. There were also leafy plants, dead mice and fish skeletons made from plastic, paper or clay. Together with the survivalist paraphernalia (stacked water bottles and saltine crackers, for example) found in other areas of the partial enclosure, these forms read as portents of ecological threat.
Other objects in this piece-most prominently, the eponymous pendulum-referred to measurement only to subvert expectations. Pendulums are often used to demonstrate the Earth’s rotation; the one here hung from a ceiling motor that caused it to swing unpredictably. If this show explored the notion of sustainable living, Sze seemed to be saying that there is no certainty regarding its outcome.
Photo: Sarah Sze: Model for a Weather Vane, 2012, mixed mediums, 136 by 150 by 56 inches; at Victoria Miro.
In 1996, when Sarah Sze positioned hundreds (perhaps thousands) of minute, fossil-like objects—each scrupulously fashioned from toilet paper moistened with saliva—in an inconspicuous alcove of a group exhibition in SoHo, the artist, then pursuing her MFA, had yet to develop the sculptural lexicon for which she is now known. Three years later, Sze’s installations would begin to rely upon an abundance of mass-produced items that function as interdependent components, as in Everything that Rises Must Converge (1999)—which suggests a detonated scientific model caught in midair—rather than an accumulated one-off inventory. Even if Sze’s division between crafted and culled constituents was only briefly absolute, it did establish a dialectical relationship essential to the installations that formed her recent solo exhibition (all works 2010).
The whole of the largest work, The Uncountables (Encyclopedia), was situated at a slight angle within the main gallery, as if to follow a west-southwest compass heading. True to its title, the installation contained a seemingly innumerable assortment of objects positioned mostly on interconnected shelves. In one area, gravel provided the footbed for a pair of lovely, pristinely white papier-mâché sneakers. On a lower shelf were four sticks of foil-wrapped gum (among many other small, individually wrapped goods), and, on the shelf above, a display of drill bits. The installation’s armature variously comprised gray, hole-punched steel, webbing straps and—as a few ingenious upright supports—drinking glasses. While Sze’s pioneering installations were largely bound to the floor in crude groupings suggesting a hoarder’s trove, The Uncountables’ myriad ordered objects appeared to tilt and rotate on an axis. Despite its apparent sprawl, the piece owed much to the logic of the grid.
In an upstairs gallery, Sze returned to the filigree lines of her signature, architecturally responsive models with 360 (Portable Planetarium). Employing curved and clamped lattice strips intersected by metal girders and taut string, the large spherical work evoked a planetary rupture, remarkably both airy and dense. Looking past the assortment of bottle caps, cups and other quotidian objects suspended within its interior, the viewer discovered a curved and stepped construction to which aerial photographs of the land and sea were affixed. The intense cerulean blue of these scenes complemented an adjacent display of photographs of a raging forest fire. After digesting their pleasing chromatic correspondence, a disturbing implication emerged: perhaps our ecological awareness is no match for a commerce-driven world fueled by seductive, disposable goods. Such sudden and unexpected jabs of meaning could be found throughout Sze’s exhibition—weighty revelations served up with visual delight.
Photo: View of Sarah Sze’s installation The Uncountables (Encyclopedia), 2010, metal shelves and mixed mediums; at Tanya Bonakdar.