Coyne of the Realm

At first one might not know what to make of the mass of wax (“specially formulated,” at that) and “human and horse hair, ribbons, pigments, black spray paint, fabricated rubber, wire tree branches, curly willow, chicken wire fencing, wire, acrylic primer, silk flowers, bows, acetate ribbons, wire, feathers, plywood, metal hardware, pearl-headed hat pins, and tassels.” So goes the list of materials on the press sheet. But that’s only for Untitled #1103 (Daphne).

Daphne happens to be the first piece you see when you enter Petah Coyne’s “Above and Beneath the Skin,” a survey of this artist’s work at the SculptureCenter (44-19 Purves St., Long Island City, to April 10). Part II of this traveling exhibition will be at Galerie Lelong (528 W. 26th St., Jan. 29 to March 12). Future sites: Chicago Cultural Center; Kemper Museum, Kansas City; Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art; and the home base of curator Douglas Dreishpoon, the Albright-Knox in Buffalo.

The SculptureCenter, located in a former trolley repair shop four blocks from P.S.1, is obviously not big enough for the exhibition, and the old gentlemen’s agreement that exhibitions at museums and nonprofits should not be accompanied by related manifestations at commercial galleries has long been superceded; in the past it would have been too vulgar to admit that there might be a relationship between a museum or nonprofit exhibition and actual sales of art.

Although Lelong is Coyne’s commercial representative, nowadays with arts fundings down we might look at such gallery/nonprofit collaboration as inevitable. Lelong is in Chelsea with a particularly serious stable of artists; whereas the SculptureCenter is in windswept Queens, in an area that, in spite of P.S. 1 as perennial would-be anchor, has not taken off as a full-blown art district.

There are not, I fear, enough suitable buildings to create the art density needed, and the Citibank skyscraper looms over all. But maybe I’m wrong again and the area will blossom. Transportation is fine. Vis-a-vis Chelsea, where transportation is problematic, maybe that’s what’s wrong with Long Island City: it’s too easy to get to. You just get on the #7.


          In Search of Grandma’s Pearl Necklace

In the meantime, in the dead of winter black wax roses are in bloom. Coyne’s Daphne is covered with them. There’s apparently also a “wax statuary” underneath the trailing pile of flowers.

Coyne, who has to be one of the most adventurous artists around in terms of materials, is here represented by 14 sculptures, nearly half of which hang from the rafters. The materials further include: black sand and baby powder (Brides in Mourning-Medium), 1989-91; shaved car hair (?) and chicken wire (Ghost/First Communion), 1991; silk flowers, pearls, and candles (Buddha Boy), 2002; hair dye, shampoo, conditioner, taxidermy, picture hangers, and tacks (BZ-CD-Put-Put), 1997-98. There is also, somewhere (or so the artist admits), her grandmother’s pearl necklace. And in the forthcoming Lelong installation, a statue that weeps.

The finicky will note that in the above I have dropped the full titles – Untitled with one number or another appended plus a parenthetical identifier; I prefer to emphasize the latter. Artworks need titles for reference and tracking. Artists traditionally use numbering so viewers won’t have preconceptions about the work, allowing more freedom of interpretation. On the other hand, Ghost/First Communion and Buddha Boy, for instance, more clearly identify the sculptures and, although poetic, help the viewer to get a handle on some very complex sculptures that have a lot of covert content. Concealment is the prevalent strategy.

To some it may come as a great relief from this accumulation of materials to discover, in the small room off the main “shed,” six of Coyne’s photographs, cool and blurry silver gelatin prints. I, however, still prefer the gloppy pile-ups, cover-ups and air-borne nests of wax and such. And then there’s that wall piece made primarily of hair (BZ-CD-Put-Put). I would go anywhere to see that. And Daphne. And Mary/Mary and MIT Peacocks.

I like the white-wax pieces better than the black ones (with the exception of Daphne). It’s not just a matter of taste: the white wax, with or without actual candles, is elevated by the ecclesiastical and ritual connotations that are at the heart of Coyne’s work. She admits to being a “lapsed Catholic,” but no amount of assertion that her primary influence is Japanese culture will convince me. As an army-brat she spend some formative years among Japanese-Hawaiians, and in 1991, funded by the Asian Cultural Council, she traveled about Japan for six months. But the Catholicism of her vision overwhelms all else.

When Coyne admitted to Lynne Tillman in BOMB magazine that she was a lapsed Catholic, the novelist mused:

“I wonder what lapsed means. It’s one thing not to be a practicing Catholic, but to lapse is something else, to disconnect, not be involved.”

“You can’t disconnect,” Coyne answered.

When Tillman offered that “Bataille writes sex scenes on altars; only someone still connected would care,” Coyne parried with:

“But that is what Catholicism is about. You’re kneeling in front of this naked man up on a crucifix.”


               Waxing Poetic

Coyne is not, definitely not, a minimalist. So what is she? Is her work just more antiform? No formalist anitformist would allow such rampant use of connotation. Is she a feminist? If so, she seems to hold on to essentialism in a very peculiar way. In Sculpture Magazine (June ’03), she told interviewer Jan Garden Castro that all of her pieces seem fragile:

But that is deceiving, because they’re all begun with steel understructures. Yet I want each one to look incredibly delicate and to have that feminine sense of appearing soft and seductive. But as any number of women have shown, we have an internal strength and drive that is hard to fathom.

Women and men are so different, and I think that we address different issues in our writings and in our vision. Because this is the first century of women sculptors of any kind of quantity, the differences between the genders are more apparent. I enjoy looking at and thinking about these differences.

In many of the art schools, it seems 75 to 80 percent of the sculptors are women. Why is that? Possibly because we have no history, we’re totally free to make our own history. And we’re making a different history, which is thrilling to me.

Never mind that some women would be offended by the phrase “the feminine sense of the soft and delicate.” How Japanese: Women are or should be soft outside but tough inside; men, the reverse. Never mind that according to some the difference between the genders has become thankfully less apparent. Never mind that art by woman does have a history, but until recently suppressed. Never mind that both women and men are free as artists to make their own history, must make their own history. Never mind that gender definitions and stipulations, no matter how outwardly benign and consensual, whether based on essentialism or socially constructed, only serve to limit human freedom

In the meantime, Coyne’s sculptures will startle, will puzzle, will please, will cause you to look at the history of sculpture in a different way: Schwitters, Rauschenberg, Conner, Coyne.

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