Night Gallery’s current five-artist exhibition, International Women’s Day, celebrates the holiday by focusing on the legacy of one woman artist in particular, Camille Claudel. Although an accomplished sculptor on her own, she was often overshadowed by her mentor and lover Auguste Rodin, and after suffering a breakdown and destroying much of her work, she spent the last thirty years of her life in an asylum. International Women’s Day features contemporary artists “working to continue Claudel’s legacy of sculptural production with an awareness of itself as a narrative object: the narrative being both the material story of the object’s making and its corroboration of the artists’ existence.”
The artist whose work shares the closest aesthetic affinities with the early modern sculpture of Claudel is David Armstrong Six. His multimedia sculptures are composed of rough-hewn pieces of plaster, wood, metal, and paint. They are abstract stand-ins for lone figures, junkyard Giacomettis whose heavily textured surfaces keep us moving around them to apprehend all the elements and discern how they relate to the whole. The insertion of recognizable objects—a maraca and plaster eggplant into one piece (Radio, 2014), or a polished wooden phallus in another (Imposter, 2013)—provides a counterweight to the formalism of the works, proclaiming them as objects in the real world.
On the surface, Lizzie Fitch’s inkjet-printed two-dimensional constructions would seem to be about as far from Six’s slapdash works as possible, but they both combine disparate elements in ways that reward extended viewing. Her layered canvases feature hybrid objects made from images of power tools, car keys, body parts, and banal nature backdrops. Similar to her work with longtime collaborator Ryan Trecartin, Fitch focuses on how technology shapes our vision. Instead of ADD-fueled video narcissism, however, these works reference our Photoshop-enabled ability to produce smooth, seamless composites from an unending stream of visual material. Although enigmatic, these works are less compelling than To-Be-Titled (2008–2014), a sculpture by Fitch that could have been assembled from scraps off of Paul McCarthy’s studio floor. All rubber breasts, hands, and hair, the figure has a disarming presence, at once vulnerable and unsettling.
Sam Anderson’s miniature sculptures are perhaps the most narrative in the exhibition, although it is up to the viewer to assemble her own story from among the pieces. Arranged in rows on the ground, the sculptures that make up Food to Go With Drinks (2014) each tell one line of a story, like an exquisite corpse: a door with two skulls in front, glow-in-the-dark ping-pong balls, tiny skis on wooden wedges. A series of wooden blocks of different sizes reads like a humorous attempt to cut Carl Andre down to size. Scale is a key component of these works, as they vacillate between larger objects made small (skis), and small objects presented at 1:1 scale (ping-pong balls). They pull us down into their space but demand caution, lest we disturb the sawdust or eraser fragments scattered about. They are precious in the best sense of the word.
Marina Pinsky’s architectural constructions explore the gap between three-dimensional forms and two-dimensional representations, combining printed images with structural forms. In Arch (2014), sketched and photographic depictions of a staircase are topped with an arch made of sculpted blocks. In the titled-with-a-pun Arch Support (2014), an arched form serves as the literal support for a 2D rendering of illusionistic space beyond, complete with perspective lines. Although conceptually strong, there is something in the flat, deadpan execution that keeps these works from being fully engrossing.
Ian Cheng’s live computer simulation Entropy Wrangler Atik (2014) is an infinite loop of objects, people, and animals crashing into each other, spinning off, and exploding. Like an inverse version of the popular video game Katamari Damacy, we watch as figures, dinosaurs, birds, sharks, plants, tools, and office furniture collide with one another, flail about, and burst into flames, with accompanying sound effects. The result is mesmerizing, not only for an adolescent fascination with destruction, but for the infinite amount of permutations possible. It is like watching a performance, witnessing something happening in real time, never to be repeated.
The focus on narrative as a way to connect these artists’ work back to Claudel’s is a novel but problematic strategy. It is surely important to recognize the reasons behind the literal, historical erasure of Claudel’s work. However, we should be careful not to let biographical narrative hold disproportionate influence over our experience of an artwork. In a sense, then, the dramatic story of Claudel’s life has obscured our appreciation of the objects themselves. By proclaiming that the work in International Women’s Day celebrates a “more true to life emotionality,” as the press release states, we run the risk of essentializing what it means to be a female artist. Perhaps it is best in this case not to adhere too closely to the curatorial statement, but to take each artist’s work on its own terms.
International Women’s Day is on view at Night Gallery in Los Angeles through April 5, 2014.