Twenty Years at Bellas Artes

July 1 - 30, 2011


Eclectic sculptures, both bold and delicate, can mean so many things

Art Issues

by Malin Wilson-Powell for the Albuquerque Journal

For the month of July, in the often quiet, off-thebeaten-path Bellas Artes gallery in the Compound complex on Canyon Road, the pulse has been quickened by the work of Judy Pfaff. To celebrate her 20-year association with the gallery, the artist came to Santa Fe to install a sampling of her finely tuned signature works. They are works of astonishing tenderness and vitality and cause for celebration.

Upon entering the first gallery, a viewer will face an installation called “Lay There By the Juniper” that at first seems to simultaneously tumble, drift, float and glow. A large wall-mounted Plexiglas disk interacts with a “black light” resulting in both a gentle, overall swoony-moony aspect of color in the disk as well as a line of ultra-violet zipping around the edge. Large Chinese paper globe lanterns in soft shades of blue and moon-glow green levitate leftward, and a white wire line meanders downward toward a snaggle of gnarly, tuberous roots, oily iridescent foam, and desiccated pleated foil decorations. Its transparent gauze drapery and silk flowers are alive to breezes. There are also blue zip ties, painted twigs, and dangling electrical elements. There are so many different through lines to follow with so many different velocities operating, it should be a mess. But it all works. It is generous, sure-footed, and sweetly tentative in its vulnerability.

For almost 40 years, Pfaff’s art has been so profoundly oriented and grounded that she consistently makes material objects that express both structure and spaciousness. Her work has physical weight and an emotional gravitas at the same time as the universal human heliotropic propensity to rise up from crawling to standing to looking around with unshackled perceptions. Her work is both rooted and buoyant in an intelligence that speaks to the human potential for discernment. With age, her work becomes increasingly adroit and spot-on.

A virtuoso of large-scale installations since the 1970s, an era of geometric progressions in sculpture, Pfaff came to make her space-time generators from a different sensibility. Beginning as a painter, she questioned everything about sculpture and has changed the nature of sculpture into a dynamic exchange between the inside and outside of human experience. Anyone who has seen her encompassing installations knows how fully she meets the different conditions of each place she transforms. While each has an entirely different timbre specific to the circumstances, they all place the viewer inside an enveloping membrane.

Everyone will find different physical and metaphorical sensations here, based upon the tuning of their being. The parable of the six blind men and the elephant, each confident in their descriptions of different aspects of the elephant, is akin to encountering Pfaff’s work. In fact, her 1995 installation at the Rose Art Museum at Brandeis University was titled “Elephant” in recognition of the immense variety and potential for specific textural, sensate experiences.

What makes all this possible is Pfaff’s ability, in every circumstance, to reliably and firmly realize a unique structural scaffold in sync with her omni-directional activation of space. Pfaff’s Bellas Artes exhibition, however, is not a whole gallery installation. It is a hybrid of discrete objects primarily composed in her studio that have a decidedly Asian cast, featuring paper and bamboo lanterns and shades. In addition to one older wall piece from 1992, there are five recent framed paper works, and six wall sculptures, two of which she developed in situ as installations that spill onto the floor. They are in the first gallery, where the lighting is low. Next to “Lay There By the Juniper” is the turbulent construction titled “The Infamous Amanitas,” where a tornado of red paper lanterns lifts a swirling mass of gourds, organic matter, and plastic into a vortex that sucks the flesh from a vegetal skeleton resting on the ground.

Pfaff included her 1992 wall assemblage titled “Jingdezhen” in this show because of its relationship to the current work on view. Jingdezhen is named for the Chinese city that has been the “Porcelain Capital” for 1,800 years, a place where large deposits of fine kaolin made possible the translucent white bodies of Ming pots. Pfaff’s marvelous human-scaled “Jingdezhen” is a drawing in space that has a wobbly pearlescent blob of glass at its center with metal flotsam and jetsam orbiting around it. The core, or belly, of this very alive creature is supported by strong metal tendrils and in turn supports an epiphytic, tangled mess of beaded wire. Dangling from it are dried devils claws that have hitched a ride. The whole is enlivened by a suggestion of vigilance in the shape of an open-frame satellite receiver and antennae sprouting tin cans. It recalls the now-ancient childhood pre-mobile phone experiment in listening to one another with two tin cans connected by a string. Pfaff’s work is all about connecting.

There are a three elegant 2011 wall constructions titled “Makawao,” “Silvernails,” and “Give the Duck a Bit of Bread,” the last being a particularly intense, heavily worked meditation. It is a masterpiece in the lineage of collage that like all of Pfaff’s work has so many art-world and real-world references and a level of nuance that makes it a long-term engine of interest far beyond the scope of this column. For example, in this piece East meets West, the personal meets the political, the law meets the flesh, design meets art, color meets black-and white, slick meets fuzzy, the clear meets the impenetrable, the quotidian meets the majestic, etc., etc.

The indefatigable Pfaff has continually refined her practice through decades of creating site-specific sprawling installations with her crew, through decades of teaching, and through extended hours working alone in her studio. She forged a path that has been taken up by many younger installation artists like Jessica Stockholder, Jason Rhodes, and Sara Sze, all of whom can aspire to her ongoing specificity, buoyancy, rigor, structural integrity and dynamic humanity.

Don’t miss this exhibition. And when you go, don’t miss the all white paper “minimalist” (for Pfaff) paper collage that has no name.

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