Critical Reflections: Rock, Paper, Scissors

| THE magazine - May 29, 2013

Five female artists follow a hearty tradition of assembling found objects with the intent to entice tangible (sur)realism from the viewer

Five female artists investigate the “modernist tradition of assemblage” at 333 Montezuma’s newest show, "Rock, Paper, Scissors". In 1880-1, Degas integrated muslin and ribbon into one of his bronzed dancers. Mallarmé and Apollinaire explored semantic collages, and early Cubists like Braque and Picasso adopted collage in their paintings while exploring three-dimensional assemblages. Duchamp’s "Bicycle Wheel" was originally made in 1913 and was followed by the Surrealists’ co-opting of assemblaged objects, exemplified by Oppenheim’s fur teacup and saucer (1936). The term assemblage wasn’t coined until 1953, when Jean Dubuffet used it to refer to his own collages. Evidently, the artists in "Rock, Paper, Scissors"—Ellen Babcock, Mary Lee Bendolph, Kay Harvey, Rebekah Potter and Lucrecia Troncoso—follow a hearty tradition of assembling found objects with the intent to entice tangible (sur)realism from the viewer. The modernist tradition of assemblage asks that new significance be discovered in the quotidian. By displacing, repositioning and recombining the ordinary, the ordinary may become enchanting.

Babcock repurposes wood to form tall, unbearably slender sculptures that stand life-size and wayward, and are precariously balanced throughout the gallery. There are five of them, mostly white with intermittent swathes of bright paint across their lanky statures. "Crane #3" (Broken Legged) poses a myriad of interpretations. A slim piece of wood reaches the pinnacle with a small, cocked, oval board marked by a thick stripe of blue paint. Toward the bottom, this lanky neck meets a two-by-four whose angled point touches the floor like a ballerina’s big toe. Its pose is graceful despite awkward proportions and makeshift construction. Leaning up midway at the waist is a secured narrow triangle of white wooden scraps, presumably pulled from a domestic interior, which meet the floor with a roughly rounded horizontal beam. The whole apparatus looks like a plow, while its delicate white frame, brushed by remnants of washed purple paint, defies any utilitarian purpose.

Despite any previous structural uses of Babcock’s wood, the present assembly of discards invites fresh perspective while visually evading the banality of its materials. Absolutely figurative, "Crane #3" is slender and demure, with blushes of color that playfully consider female domesticity. Is this a woman vacuuming, gardening? Is it a vanity stand? The rickety craftsmanship questions female workmanship in what is often a male playing field, leaving the faint impression that if "Crane #3", so aptly titled, was built by a male, it might be more concerned with strength and stability. Here its precarious building scraps are balanced by that curiously jutting apparatus, without which the whole structure might crash to the floor like a spinning, one-legged giraffe.

"Crane #1" soars 75 inches up with two stacked shanks of thin repurposed wood. It reaches skyward from a white wooden base, curved around like an ink blob colored by pink and pale-green paint splashes. At the top of this crane is a floppy, thin wooden wishbone that droops across the vertical beam like a convex urban electrical cord. The whole sculpture perches in space, as upright as a skyscraper and as delicate as a twig. Again, its title references construction and those immense glorified gadgets that move immoveable weight. "Crane #1" is a meek, waiflike creature, a distant cousin of Alexander Calder’s standing mobiles, whose wiry ligaments promise dreamlike play. "Crane #2 "uses a log midway up that’s painted white and reveals a singular floating eye sketched in pencil, this no doubt an homage to the paintings of Miró. Babcock’s sculptures emote without facial features. They tread lightly but their bodies infringe upon space like Giacometti figures, ever a shadow in the visitor’s midst.

Ellen Babcock (foreground), Crane #3 (Broken Legged), 2013, wood, paint, 74" x 25" x 54"

Harvey’s works on paper may be called collages, but they often leap from the wall with curved pieces of draped paper. Harvey uses torn-up scraps from her previous monotypes and the thick, heavy paper appears structural. "About Ice Series 8" glistens like sandpaper, and its rough surfaces hold together like debris from domestic refurbishing that when pasted together approach assemblage. Even the unassuming drawings of Lucrecia Troncoso push the boundary of three-dimensionality but aren’t assemblages or even collages. "Prismacolor Parrot Green PS1006" looks like a bird’s-eye view of the ocean. Her drawings are meditative progressions in which she labors methodically, juxtaposing burnished cross-hatch patches over and over until the entire forty-by-thirty-two-inch piece of paper holds one large geometric form.

Potter repurposes bed sheets to stitch assemblages with all the flushed discoloration of the human body, complete with threaded body hair and Harmony Hammond-esque orifices. Mary Lee Bendolph’s quilts follow the tradition of Gee’s Bend, an African-American practice of quilting that relied heavily on assembled scraps to sew unsymmetrical designs. All five women are New Mexico–based artists with practices that by exploring the tactility of their materials emphasize the space between art and life.