After walking into the building at 453 West 17th Street, a contemporary art enthusiast finds theirself crossing the threshold of Murray Guy Gallery. Turning the corner, entrancing silence and blunt blankness immediately ensues. Embraced by a vertical box of space, hinged with low walls, warm lights, and one solitary window palpably placed at the far end, the eyes are then summoned towards the hardwood floors which serve as the holistic host to five pairs (totaling ten physical pieces) of hand-crafted sculptural installations.
Meanwhile, in an alternate dimension, another contemporary art enthusiast opens the front door to Peter Freeman Gallery on 140 Grand Street. Here, they are greeted by high ceilings and a blank white wall where traces of beguiling explorations ostensibly lie ahead. But first, this viewer is coerced to reconcile with a single cement step where a white teacup sits amidst the shelter under the corner of the stone.
Lucy Skaer, My Steps as my terrace III, 2013
These two concurrent exhibitions, Sticks and Stones at Murray Guy and Random House at Peter Freeman, feature the works by the British artist Lucy Skaer. Conjointly, these shows function as inter-changeable lanes on a contemplative highway of abstraction, where both raise questions surrounding the liberated limitations of space, time, materiality and the inherent connections between all three vehicles. Skaer, who was a 2009 Turner Prize nominee, represented Scotland at the 52nd Venice Biennial, and who recently showed at Tramway in Glasgow and at the YALE Union in Portland Oregon, utilizes the medium of an exhibition- in this case, two exhibitions- to weave a misappropriated yet uniquely contemplative narrative. She shapes, reshapes, manipulates, replicates and re-contextualizes combined elements of found material from her studio, material from nature and metaphysical material from her subliminal subconscious.
By stitching together a curated web of newer and older works, which feature materials plucked out of their natural habitat combined with works which incorporate a handful of multifaceted techniques, this two fold show shakes hands with nostalgic allegory while obligingly smiling into the face of mystics and mystery.
Lucy Skaer, Sinker mahogany, Burmese blackwood, tin, coins, lithographic stone, ceramic, copper, American walnut, tiger’s eye, carnelian, 2015
Back at Murray Guy, the tranquil yet pensive mind, twists and turns through and around Skaer’s carefully carved sculptures. Moving down the line, though all five works are clearly produced from strikingly different material, it does appear that they were all molded by the same sinker mahogany prototype (the first piece seen closest towards the entrance). However, each sculpture is replicated from its predecessor laid before it, and in this order: the ceramic crafted from the mahogany blueprint, the marble from the ceramic, the aluminum from the marble, and the veneered wood from the aluminum. By incorporating this technique, Skaer elucidates the ephemerality of a given material and harnesses the subjective relationship which inevitably occurs between the molding of material when the personal hand of the artist interjects. This raises the question, that even though the sculptures are made from different materials inadvertently produced from an original mahogany blueprint, does it mean they are in fact the same?
Murray Guy’s press release begins with a quote from Gertrude Stein’s Composition as Explanation, which was first delivered as a lecture to the Cambridge Literary Club and at Oxford University that summer in 1925, and was then published later that year by Leonard and Virginia Woolf’s Hogarth Press.
It was all so nearly alike it must be different and it is different, it is natural that if everything is used and there is a continuous present and a beginning again and again if it is all so alike it must be simply different and everything different was the natural way of creating it then.
And if they are indeed similar, what does this say about the relationship we experience when we interact with them? Or, what if they are in fact all so different that they are similar, just as Stein suggests? In the life of Theseus, the Greek historian asked, does a ship remain the same after replacing and restoring each and every one of its wooden parts? Skaer poses similar paradoxical and puzzling questions with her works. Upon closer inspection, there appears to be another commonality in form: deeply and delicately carved incisions made onto each sculpture in the same repeating sections. Yet, although the incisions are the same, the materials which she has chosen to fill each one are different.
Lucy Skaer, Ceramic, 2015
Lucy Skaer, Blue Savoy marble and malachite, 2015
Lucy Skaer, Aluminum and gunmetal, 2015
Lucy Skaer, Maple, oak, Paraná pine, yew, Douglas fir, cedar of Lebanon, 2015
These materials, which she has either taken from her New York studio or particular gems which she foraged from nature, are both symbolic and organically placed. And similar to a birthmark on a human, or the number of rings found in the internal traces of a tree’s trunk, these astutely chosen timeless constituents function as a portal towards an abstracted nostalgia. While she alludes to narratives from her own life, and to the lives of the materials themselves, her main objective is to offer an invitation for the viewer to relate and identify with their own personal memoirs, and how so commonly a given individual associates memory to a certain object. These objects and the memories are different, but this spine of thought as to why we do it, remains the same. What does a tiger’s eye stone (a powerful stone which is known to promote harmony and balance and also soothes anxiety and fear, thus stimulating confidence to take positive action) mean to you? Or, what do coins immersed in a lithographic stone, coins which were taken from her studio in New York, symbolize to you? And on a more macroscopic level, is this just a tree? Is this just a massive piece of aluminum with random objects splintered in? Or, has the metamorphosis during each of these pieces’ production created a curious connection between you and these now transformed sculptures? After these meditations, it may now seem as if you have embarked upon a new formation of thought, or trampled upon an aroused graveyard of a sculpted genealogy of materialized descendants from a particularly traced ancestry.
Lucy Skaer, My Steps as my terrace II, 2013
Lucy Skaer, My Steps as my terrace I, 2013
The connections between these two shows are endless. Three cement steps, for example, which have been chiseled away from the stoop of her childhood home in Cambridge, England, are articulately peppered throughout the three rooms in Peter Freeman Gallery. Although these natural steps serve as fragmented indications of her own childhood, she politely adorns them with ceramics which were hand crafted to resemble artifacts from her close neighbors and family member’s homes. The ceramic teacup, which greets you at the front door, is a firm nod to Lucie Rie’s–who resided in flat number 6–love for collecting pottery. Or, the ancient Greek golden leaf planted in the center of My Steps as my terrace II, floats and hovers over this cement stone like an apparition of the ghost of her grandfather, who is historically revered for finding the tomb of Philip of Macedon. Productions such as these, cause for direct association with the human mind’s inevitable urge to attribute memory to an object, and the altered perception of the value of a material when it is re-contextualized and remade from the memory of a similar object. By amicably and diplomatically summoning viewers to participate along with her journey’s, she hopes one may come to some abstracted realization of their own. A teacup may cause one to stroll back to past conversations over soothing hot beverages; a stone may lure the mind to conjure seemingly distant childhood explorations, and so forth. While Skaer’s works may seem simple and silent, they champion a challenge towards a heightened inward enlightenment. They instigate navigation through the spaces which unfold between the subliminal subconscious both physically and mentally.
Lucy Skaer, detail from My Terra Cotta Army, My Red Studio, My Amber Room 1, woodcut, etching, silkscreen, digital print, paper pulp print, photo intaglio and oil based ink on fabriano artistico super white paper, 2013
Another reference to memory and value of the material is witnessed in Skaer’s 58 foot paper scroll, ‘My Terra Cotta Army, My Red Studio, My Amber Room 1,’ which eloquently drapes the entire right wall of the Freeman space. The foundation, Edouard Vuillard’s 1892 rendition of his painted serene snapshot into ‘The Dressmaking Studio’ , is rhythmically layered with numerous book covers from Virginia and Leonard Woolf’s printing press, instigating the traveling mind to think back to the Gertrude Stein allusion referenced at Murray Guy. By utilizing multiple processes, from silkscreen and etching to woodcutting, the outcome is somewhat like a scrambled abstract imagery. Vuillard, who was influenced by Japanese prints and decorative screens, was also inspired by decorative friezes that he painted frequently. Decorative friezes that Skaer first uncovered in a black and white book which she adored. Alongside this, the Woolf book covers sometimes hand painted on paper, not only alludes to their striking visual aesthetic, but also towards the pioneering efforts of Virginia and Leonard who wanted their own printing press so that they would have full control over how their books (and the books of their colleagues) were edited and published. And although these elements may have originally functioned as decorative and domestic, both possess certain histories; this layering and superimposition of these narratives strips away their original context causing a fragmentation of their initial story to unfold almost to the point of incoherence.
Lucy Skaer, 51 Lithographs printed from the Guardian, 2013
Venture deeper, and one will also find illusive connections between her collection of lithographs, all of which cover the corner of the second room in the Peter Freeman Gallery. This collection, which alludes to a series of plates taken from The Guardian, catalogue poignant events such as the death of Margaret Thatcher to the Boston bombing and the manhunt which occurred afterwards to monumental moments in British football. By re-recording these moments through a transitory technique, she edits each portion of the lithograph, allowing for only small bits of hair, or a corner of an eye to seep through the paper; and by transforming these plates into a state of almost ghostly, unrecognizable lithographic moments in time, she cleverly alludes to memory, loss, and the new insights which are gained when certain instances in time are forgotten, only to be remembered in an alternate context. In this respect, the observant’s only choice is to identify and…relate. As William James would say in his Perception of Psychology, we only conceive of the past as an idea- the only real knowledge we can obtain is taken from the present. And it is during these moments when the observer’s interaction with Skaer’s work takes control, when the normality of the quotidian vanishes and the past, present, and future inevitably congeal to reveal a new dimension of perception.
Both shows are now running until February 21, 2015.
To find out more about Murray Guy Gallery go: HERE
To find out more about Peter Freeman Gallery go: HERE
*All photos are courtesy of: Murray Guy Gallery and Peter Freeman Gallery