The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2015

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FEB 2015 Issue


Two stunning simultaneous exhibitions by the Scottish artist Lucy Skaer give New Yorkers their most comprehensive view of the artist’s range to date. Skaer represented Scotland in the 52nd Venice Biennale, was a finalist for the Turner Prize in 2009, and has had solo exhibitions at the Kunsthalle Wien in Vienna, the Kunsthalle Basel, and the Fruitmarket Gallery in Edinburgh. Her films were part of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Spies in the House of Art: Photography, Film, and Video, and her work was shown at the Sculpture Center, both in 2012.

Lucy Skaer, “My Terracotta Army, my Red Studio, my Amber Room II,” 2013. 530 tenmuko-glazed stoneware lozenges (374 on view), overall dimensions variable each approximately 1 7/8 × 11 × 7 1/4 ̋.

Her second exhibition with Murray Guy, Sticks & Stones, draws on Gertrude Stein’s “Composition as Explanation” (1925) lecture given at the Cambridge Literary Club at Oxford: 

“Beginning again and again is a natural thing even when there is a series.” “Everything is the same except composition and as the composition is different and always going to be different everything is not the same.”

Skaer begins the series with an immense slab of mahogany reclaimed from a river bottom in Belize where it had resided for 100 years. She hoped that the mysterious slab would “emanate that darkness back.” The timbered plank, bisected into two parts, retains its natural shape and is embedded with what the artist calls “bits and bobs” from her former New York studio. These mementos—a litho stone, carnelian, tigers eye, and coins—are inlaid with a jeweler’s precision. 

Using different materials, the exact shapes of the first mahogany piece are each hand reproduced from its predecessor over the course of five successive works. The second version is made of ceramic tiles with ceramic inserts; the third with Blue Savoy marble and malachite; the fourth, aluminum and gunmetal; and the fifth uses maple, oak, pine, yew, cedar, and fir.

Lucy Skaer, installation view of “Sticks & Stones I,” 2013 – 2015.
On View
Peter Freeman, Inc.
Random House
January 8 – February 21, 2015
New York
On View
Murray Guy
Sticks & Stones
January 10 – February 21, 2015
New York

Though the artist says these inlaid pieces have “been emptied of meaning,” the materials have an internalized history that calls forth a process of free association in the viewer. Savoy marble conjures up French châteaus, the malachite, the room in the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg; yew wood boot trees, cedar chests, etc. The diverse combinations induce a version of “observer shift” where even though the forms are identical, the results are varied. Skaer is like the alchemists who performed the same experiment many times with varying results. The level of craft combined with her extraordinary feeling for materials is the most masterful this critic has seen in any contemporary work. The viewer squats on the floor taking in the jewel-like fitting of shapes, suspended in a dialogue with pieces of wood and stone that seem to speak for themselves.

The companion exhibition at Peter Freeman is larger in scale, and includes works from Skaer’s 2013 Tramway Glasgow exhibition. “My Steps as My Terrace” (2013) features three sandstone steps from the artist’s childhood terrace home in Cambridge; a bronze Roman mirror is inset into step one, representing the artist’s house. Mounted on step two is a reproduction of an ancient golden Greek oak leaf (Skaer’s grandfather, who lived next door, located the tomb of Philip of Macedon). The third step has a teacup nestled under one end. Skaer’s neighbor in number six collected Lucie Rie pottery. The steps contain the terrace’s collective history, what critic Max Andrews called the acheiropoietic—mass production and the artisanal coming together as if the materials had their own mystical accord.

“My Terracotta Army, my Red Studio, my Amber Room II” (2013), is a reference to the terracotta army of Quin Shi Huang. Ceramic lozenges resembling cut emeralds are arranged in a linear formation that mimics the army’s trench burial. Their glaze comes from the St. Ives Cornwall atelier of Bernard Leach, master of glazes ancienne and Orientale. Viewers, of a certain age, may find this pottery reference a wonderful blast from the past. The lineup of the beautiful beetle forms lovingly laid out has a touching quality quite the reverse of the Quin Shi Huang’s rather menacing soldiers.   The artist’s parents were molecular biologists, and the lozenges’ emerald cut reflects Skaer’s inherited interest in molecular structure and scientific observation.

Lucy Skaer, “Sticks & Stones I,” 2013 – 2015. Sinker mahogany, Burmese blackwood, tin, coins, lithographic stone, ceramic opper, American walnut, tiger’s eye, carnelian, 151 × 29 1/2 × 2 1/2, 141 1/4 × 21 1/2 × 2 1/2 ̋.
“Sticks & Stones IV,” 2013 – 2015. Aluminum, gunmetal, 148 1/2 × 28 × 2 1/2, 141 3/4 × 24 × 2 1/2 ̋.

The Hogarth Press (publishers of Gertrude Stein’s lectures) is the subject of “My Terracotta Army, my Red Studio, my Amber Room I” (2013), a 58-foot paper scroll. Vuillard’s “The Dressmaking Studio” (1892) forms an underlayer. Book covers from Virginia and Leonard Woolf press, which were often hand-made with abstract designs, are overlaid with a variety of printing techniques. The obsession with book covers is very English, beginning with the poets of the ’90s and extending through R. B. Kitaj. Skaer says she is attracted to things “not classified as art,” the book covers being “parasitic to the book, appear in a raw state not yet interpreted.” The long scroll feels like a densely layered skin over a mysterious body of writing we are not able to read.

Two works in the exhibition reference lithography: “8.4.13. – 22.4.13” and “13.08.13. – 04.10.13(both 2013) are printed from the Guardian newspaper plates. This was the first time the paper had been printed on metal plates in a smaller format. The images have been almost wiped away, perhaps an unintended commentary on the papers’ fading status as a Labour Party standard. Here, the plates’ pale terracotta hues and the blurred floating images suggest dreamscapes more than journalism.

“American Images” (2013) consists of three boulders of lithographic limestone from Lithograph City, Iowa, quarried by the artist. The town, now long gone, sprang up when America needed a source for the stones during the World War I embargo on German Solnhofen limestone. A synchronicity unknown to Skaer was that the Iowa Print Workshop founded by Mauricio Lasansky—the dean of American lithography—still uses these stones. They rest on the gallery floor suspended between a utilitarian past and an uncertain future.

Lucy Skaer’s work occupies a luminal space, a gap, beyond the literal and the symbolic. Skaer said her visit with and film of Leonora Carrington had to do with forging a path of her own beyond Surrealism. This highly intelligent artist has developed her inquiry and subject matter with an originality that is rare in today’s art world. Like the piece of Belize mahogany brought up from the depths, Skaer has dredged the deepest archetypal layers. Skaer’s direct observation of nature is apparent. Her shows remind me of the title of an old art history book, The Mute Stones Speak. Some of Skaer’s works, like the terrace steps, occupy that space between art and artifact; perhaps George Kubler might have been the best choice to review her exhibitions.


Ann McCoy

Ann McCoy is an artist, writer, and Editor at Large for the Brooklyn Rail. She was given a Guggenheim Foundation award in 2019, for painting and sculpture.


The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2015

All Issues