Arlene Shechet: Couple of
On View‘T’ Space
July 17 – August 28, 2022
Arlene Shechet expands and deepens both her “embodied, intuitive” making of objects and her masterful organization of installations in architect Steven Holl’s ‘T’ Space. Built with keen awareness of architecture’s origins in Greek ritual drama, the venue is shaped like a T and is illuminated by varied windows, doors, and skylights, as trees cast shadows on its walls and floor. In five carefully engineered new works—one installed outdoors—with new formal attention to the figure, Shechet extends her unique blend of Dionysian and Apollonian impulses.
Reflecting ‘T’ Space’s dedication to a synthesis of the arts, the opening events included a reading by poet Maggie Millner from her forthcoming book Couplets: A Love Story, which explores the ambiguities of identity and homoerotic desire in a poem composed entirely in rhyming couplets. Composer Will Epstein and his collaborators accompanied her in musical counterpoint with call-and-response improvisations on a medley of instruments. In a written statement, Shechet links her interest in coupling to “not yet conscious” impulses associated with the birth of her first child, which led her to split and reassemble her works, inspired by the “charged field of negative space” thus generated. The show’s open-ended title, Couple of suggests that this generative dialectic doesn’t end in any reassuring synthesis but exposes a persistent fragmentation in human experience.
The weight and archaic simplicity of Iron Twins (for ‘T’ Space) (2022), presents duality in all its simplicity and complexity, as if to address once and for all this fundamental split. Improvisation is restrained in this exceptionally minimal sculpture, a self-enclosed unit composed of two geometrically austere, cast-iron torsos with uniform rusty patinas. Set next to one another in opposite directions, their dialogue is grounded in the primary bodily contrasts of front and back, left and right. Aside from some low-relief “drawing” in tape that suggests shrouding or masking, Shechet’s primary intervention consists in placing a “shoulder” to one side of each torso while turning the faceless, rectangular block that serves as a “head” to the other. This simple disruption initiates primitive social interactions between the viewer and these enigmatic, anonymous figures. Are they identical? Displaced from the frontal, vertical axis by the angled head, we look to the mirrored twin for comparison, but find ourselves in limbo—as Shechet likes to observe: in sculpture something is always hidden. We’re obliged to walk around, to rely on perceptual memory to restore a phenomenological unity to these stubbornly separate individuals. (Viewed from the side, their silhouettes combine in a “T” shape, slyly doubling the gallery’s plan).
Shechet also uses concealment by isolating the two smallest works in the show—both of them Not Yet Titled (2022)—on separate walls, viewable only consecutively by using the stairs. This decision reinforces her insistence on physical participation, while affording the contrasting pieces—one dark and encrusted, the other light and fluid—a scale and conceptual weight comparable to that of the larger works. Their unpredictable wood-fired glazing complements the material uniformity of her cast iron and porcelain. Also in contrast to the Twins’s sturdy, four-square composition, Mystery History(2022), at the opposite end of the gallery, composes an isolated figure out of a deconstructed tree. Riven by the artist’s more typical interventions, it looms in a precarious balance of internalized dualities. Also in contrast to the industrial uniformity of Twins, the work combines natural wood—part of a walnut tree with spiky surface protuberances caused by disease—with interventions applied by the artist: blue stains, chiseled scarifications, and a blob of pink-glazed ceramics that oozes like sap from one side. Its steel “head,” a disc that’s actually a wedge, crowns a sequence of angular shifts that animate its spiraling ascent. This surrealist bricolage is stabilized by slabs of metal and wood that restore us viewers to the verticality that grounds us in the gallery.
The lunar disc of Mystery History evokes the abstractions of Arthur Dove and suggests other links to Alfred Stieglitz’s circle that emerge in Spot Light (2022). Installed in a literal, geological schism—a crevice in Whale Rock (so christened by Holl) along the ‘T’ Space Sculpture Walk—Spot Light carries the animistic potency of Mystery Historyinto the surrounding woods. Envisioning, in the artist’s words, a “beam of bright white coming from within the murky forest environment,” Shechet chose gleaming white porcelain to mark her spot, in maximum contrast to the rough, dark jaws of the boulder. To create it she repurposed remnants of Low Hanging Cloud (Lion), an outdoor porcelain sculpture from her 2018 installation in New York City’s Madison Park, re-engineering the gleaming white fragments to balance precariously over the rock crevice, from which they tumble out like a brook, as in a Chinese landscape or a Marsden Hartley painting; they recall her comments on splitting and reconstructing.
In his efforts to forge an American avant-garde, Stieglitz allied himself with Marcel Duchamp to make a photograph of Fountain (1917), Duchamp’s disruptive celebration of American porcelain; Shechet, who fabricated her gleaming cloud in the Kohler porcelain factory, extends that avant-garde impulse but without his irony, which Duchamp later directed at American nature-worship in Étant donnés (1946–1966), his peep-show vision of a nude in an artificially illuminated landscape. While there’s a voyeuristic appeal to Spot Light, viewers who clamber up the side of Whale Rock to appreciate its intimate engineering and the fugitive images that float in its billowing, reflective surfaces will gain a broader perspective on artistic intervention in nature. Grounded in Holl’s sustainable architecture, ‘T’ Space makes it possible for the open-ended, meditative explorations of Couple of to embrace both the Dionysian ecstasy of Spot Light and the Apollonian severity of Iron Twins.