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PETAH COYNE: Above and Beneath the Skin


Petah Coyne, “Untitled #1103 (Daphne)” (2002-3), mixed media (black floor wax). Private collection.
Petah Coyne, “Untitled #1103 (Daphne)” (2002-3), mixed media (black floor wax). Private collection.

I remember wandering into a small, shabby old church on the outskirts of Mexico City and encountering a crude, worm-eaten wooden statue of Jesus. Perilously at its base was a mountain of molten, smoldering candles, guttering wicks sticking up from the lumpy mound of white wax, the rivulets streaming down, looking remarkably like tears. All around on the dirty tile floor were great bunches of wilted flowers, and the statue itself was covered with prayer charms, small, tarnished replicas of eyes, arms, legs, and breasts: They were a form of supplication, a humble request to be healed—for blind eyes to be made to see, crippled limbs to be made whole, barren wombs to be made fertile. Birds flew freely around the church. What was especially moving about this altar was its combination of humbleness and cosmic grandeur, the idea that a relatively small gesture by poor people might affect the world’s most awesome powers, and also the literalness and emotional openness of the supplication. And despite the altar’s transcendent, religious intent, the small flames and oozing wax and wilting flowers seemed rooted in the sensuality and beauty of the mortal human body.

One of the first pieces at Galerie Lelong for the Chelsea accompaniment of Above and Beneath the Skin, the traveling survey of Petah Coyne’s work at the Sculpture Center, organized by Douglas Dreishpoon of the Albright-Knox Gallery in Buffalo, is “Untitled #827 (Three Tiered Chandelier)” (1996), a hanging, three-tiered chandelier of cascading black wax alive with the molded shapes of birds, which seem to be attempting to writhe their way free of the sticky flows of wax. Suspended low from the ceiling by an elegant yet menacing metal chain, Coyne’s chandelier bears little trace of the rising flames and celebratory illumination it refers back to (flames being a fundamental image of the spirit and of revelation); it is heavy, gothic, oppressive, and extinguished. Like the tormented bodies imprisoned by the raw wall of bronze in Rodin’s Gates of Hell, and notably unlike the angels in Bernini’s soaring marble reliefs, which seem to be wresting themselves from the material limits of stone, the birds in “Three Tiered Chandelier” are hopelessly mired in a kind of sumptuous, decadent putrefaction: Wax, like flesh in Descartes’s Meditations, is a metaphor for the mercurial nature of matter. The slightly earlier “Untitled #689 (Brides in Mourning)” (1989-1991) has a similarly doom-filled, funereal tone. Suspended from an antique chain hoist, the piece consists of nested bell shapes fashioned from meshed wire bulging with black volcanic sand and run through with thick, root-like blue and black cables; draped on its exterior is a surprisingly delicate shawl of white netting. The idea of a ringing bell is an image both of the triumph and sanctity of the church and of the purity of the soul, just as the clanging bell in Baudelaire’s “The Cracked Bell” is a symbol of irredeemable vice. Coyne’s bell looks as though it was extracted from the bowels of the earth, and is of course mute. The brides in “Brides in Mourning” may implicitly allude to the bride in Duchamp’s famous work, but they are more akin to the virginal, novice brides giving themselves over to God. What are being mourned are our flawed desires and our thick, earth-bound mortality.

Petah Coyne: Above and Beneath the Skin, installation view at SculptureCenter, (2005). Photo courtesy of Wit Mckay (2005).
Petah Coyne: Above and Beneath the Skin, installation view at SculptureCenter, (2005). Photo courtesy of Wit Mckay (2005).

The strength of both “Three Tiered Chandelier” and “Brides in Mourning” rests in the crude, even vulgar grandeur of their allegories and the sheer gravity of their materials, and the same could be said of “Untitled #638 (Whirlwind)” (1989), with its torqued, black, sand-filled pods and savage ring of spikes. These are works which almost long to collapse into formless rubble, yet they also acknowledge our tragic longing to rise. Coyne’s more recent work, on the other hand, is less brutal and pessimistic, and has greater faith in the redemptive possibilities of beauty and nature. “Untitled #1163 (Homeland)” (2002-2004), for instance, juts out from the wall with a huge tree branch wreathed in an array of silk flowers, feathers, berries, and floral gobs of dark, swirling purple wax, which spill down onto the gallery floor. In “Untitled #111 (Little Ed’s Daughter Margaret)” (2001) an entire, chaotic ecology of tree branches, feathers, hair, wax, ribbons, and tubing cascades down toward the floor. There is an undeniable gorgeousness to these sculptures, a quality that is at once operatic, morbidly autumnal, and evocative of the northern woods, yet they lack energy or focus, and quickly degenerate into pure display, tending towards monumental table arrangements. Coyne returns to more explicitly liturgical symbolism in “Untitled #1165 (Paris Blue)” (2002-2003), in which a bridal train of blue, purple, and black silk and wax flowers flows back from what appears to be a featureless statue of the Madonna, encrusted in wax and pearl-headed pins. In the history of both painting and sculpture, as well as of vernacular shrines and artifacts, the Madonna is a figure of beauty and mystery whose serenity and sacred power inspires awe; Coyne’s Madonna, on the other hand, is merely pretty.

Petah Coyne is an artist who seeks to invest her elaborate sculptures and installations, which invariably involve an impressive array of unusual materials (rope, wire, steel, hair, black sand, baby powder, wax, velvet, satin, tree branches, silk flowers, pearl hat pins, feathers), with spiritual power, whether from the earth itself or the religious traditions. Her strategy involves accumulation and scale: Coyne brings together great masses of allusive material whose sheer weight and Baroque excess is imposing. The results are, however, mixed at best. Works which amass material tend to be most compelling when those materials are uniform and are allowed to assert their own properties rather than bear specific meanings, as in Tara Donovan’s recent work. On the other hand, when an eccentric diversity of parts is assembled together, each part needs to retain an autonomous identity and meaning, and to enter into dynamic relationships with the others: One example might be Sarah Sze’s vaulting, lyrical constructions. Coyne’s least compelling work falls between these two poles, and it is also freighted by its symbolic pretensions. In addition, Coyne, like Ann Hamilton, often confuses the sacred with the sublime. Louise Bourgeois’s little cloth fetish dolls have greater demonic force than any of Coyne’s massive, hanging sculptures.

There are, however, numerous pieces in the exhibit that benefit greatly from the vast vertical space in the Sculpture Center’s main gallery. In a sprawling wall piece, long, braided lengths of hair snarl into tangled nests, ensnaring ducks. Hair, and especially women’s hair, is often associated with erotic desire and filthy excess, and Coyne’s sculpture implies that both are a spiritual trap. “Untitled #248 (Whitney Mud)” (1986) is a bulbous, low-hanging, nasty mass of mud, sticks, and dried mushrooms, and “Untitled #551” from a year later is a clot of bound yellow hay, brittle and run through with a stick: Both refer to the rotting interior of the earth and the interior of the human body. A closely related work is “Untitled #634 (Largest Oil Piece)” (1989), a dense, oily black organ shape, this time pierced by coiling tubes.

In Coyne’s work from the early 1990s, more explicitly religious motifs emerge. “Untitled #695 (Ghost/First Communion)” (1991) is a hanging black net full of filaments and hair, and “Untitled #688 (Bride in Mourning)” (1989-1991) is a white bell shape below which hangs a hive-like black cone. Both pieces lament the ways in which the spirit is trapped in the dense heaviness of matter.

When she attempts to pursue more ascendant forms of beauty, Coyne’s work inevitably weakens, becomes forced and even kitschy. Set on a board leaning against the wall, “Untitled #810 (Mary/Mary)” (1995) has an elongated, shrouded form encrusted with candles, which scatter like petals down onto the gallery floor, and “Untitled #820 (MIT Peacocks)” (1995-2001), hanging from a chain covered in white satin, has a nest-like structure in which waxen birds with long tails struggle and swarm. With their sugary white wax, which resembles cake icing, and their emphasis on candles, flowers, and birds, both pieces strive to break free of their own materiality, but ultimately fall flat. Nonetheless, these failures feel authentic when compared with the falseness of the photographs inexplicably included in the exhibition. The most embarrassing of these is “Untitled #883 (Tear Drop Monk)” (1997), in which what appear to be Tibetan monks swarm in a grainy, romantic black-and-white blur toward what look like temple steps. Coyne’s photographs indulge in a longing for easy beauty that her better work aggressively resists.

There is a common confusion that works of spiritual power should aspire to direct transcendence, that real thinking about spirituality is thinking about transcendence. The history of religions and their various theologies, however, provide ample evidence to the contrary. Whether Christian, Jewish, Muslim, or Buddhist, they tend to focus on the finitude and mortality of the body, on the weakness of human desire, on our incapacity to know larger truths about ourselves and the world, on the fact that human life is defined by confusion, suffering, and death. These issues may in the end point toward something transcendent beyond ourselves, “showing” rather than “saying,” as Wittgenstein would have it. Perhaps the most profoundly religious art is one that is brutally close to the reality of human life, like that of Louise Bourgeois. Perhaps the only theology available to us is a negative theology. Petah Coyne’s work is most urgent and convincing when it remains close to these issues.

I remember sitting in a dive in northern Mexico, drinking shots of tequila, surrounded by an odd array of country singers in big ten-gallon hats and prostitutes, and looking up and seeing an elaborate shrine to the Madonna on a shelf above the bar: There were candles dripping wax, a plastic statue, cloth flowers, tinsel, beads, and crucifixes. There was nothing ironical about the shrine; inebriated men and women crossed themselves as they passed in front of it. It was beautiful, kitschy, absurd, and haunting all at once, in part because it seemed to embody authentic longing. The same could be said of the flamboyant shrines on view in The Sacred Art of Haitian Vodou at the Natural History Museum several years ago, or in the shrine the late Sister Gertrude Morgan, whose visionary paintings were exhibited at the American Museum of Folk Art last year, made of her home in New Orleans. Compared with these examples, Coyne’s “Mary/Mary” and “Paris Blue” lack both the vulnerability and desperate energy of actual devotion.


Daniel Baird


The Brooklyn Rail

MAR 2005

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