“Petah Coyne: black/white/black”

At the Corcoran Gallery of Art

to February 10

It is the sensation that sculpture inhabits our own space that permits personal identification with it, the perception that sculpture knows where we’ve been, having shared our realm, that leads us to leave it behind as traces of our lives. Even the most fspiritually inclined Westerners (particularly turf-loving Americans) often choose to mark what’s left of them after death with a sculpted surrogate outcropping from a patch of land. And those opting for cremation frequently provide for urns to hold their remains and stand in for their vanished presence.

Sculpture’s three-dimensionality, which enables it to serve as actual or symbolic vessels for the dead, suggests that it could also metaphorically house the living. Perhaps it is also what leads Petah Coyne to invest her sculptures with personas. Sixteen of Coyne’s “girls,” as she calls them—ornate, hanging, wax-encrusted constellations of wire, ribbon, and assorted ornaments made between 1994 and 1996—inhabit a room on the second floor of the Corcoran. It’s an auspicious gathering. Step into the gallery—it’s intimate and welcoming—and your peregrinations have ended. You are overwhelmed by the girls’ assurance and authority (after all, they were made for the space). They make it known that, whether intentionally or not, you’ve reached your destination.

You might as well mingle. Dazzled by the spectacle of spiky, betasseled neo-baroque finery (some of the girls are as exotic as angler fish), you can glide as effortlessly as Orson Welles’ camera through the festivities at the beginning of The Magnificent Ambersons. But pause for a moment, and the girls show their other side. Like Burt Lancaster in Luchino Visconti’s The Leopard, who leaves the sumptuous ball that occupies the film’s final reel and finds himself in a room brimming with filled chamber pots, you are reminded that behind all the glamour is the stink of waste and decay.

Life and death, frivolity and solemnity are only the most obvious dichotomies explored by Coyne. There are many more: masculinity/femininity, fragility/strength, massiveness/delicacy, darkness/light, memory/forgetfulness, etc. With nods to logical argument and Christian dualism in particular, Western culture has long divided experience into a series of opposing pairs, and Coyne’s work, some of the most relentlessly dualistic you’ll see, joins them back together. She appears to regard existence as what lies at the intersection of all possible pairs.

All of Coyne’s specific concerns are intertwined with the fundamental dilemma of visual art. Works of art, as physical things addressing nonphysical concerns, are naturally perched along an axis of opposition. And as something that puts visual seduction in the service of spiritual transport, devotional art—of which Coyne’s work is a highly refined sort—is ever poised at the crux of a conflict.

She was dressed in rich materials—satins, and lace, and silks—all of white. Her shoes were white. And she had a long white veil dependent from her hair, and she had bridal flowers in her hair, but her hair was white.

When Dickens introduces Great Expectations’ Miss Havisham—one of Coyne’s favorite literary characters and an inspiration for the series of untitled works on display—as seen across her candlelit dressing room by Pip, she appears to him as a bride. It quickly becomes apparent, however, that she is a peculiar sort of bride, indeed a kind of self-made widow:

But, I saw that everything within my view which ought to be white, had been white long ago, and had lost its lustre, and was faded and yellow. I saw that the bride within the bridal dress had withered like the dress, and like the flowers…

Likened by Pip to a cross between a “ghastly waxwork” and “a skeleton in the ashes of a rich dress, that had been dug out of a vault under the church pavement,” Miss Havisham has preserved herself, into her old age, in the state in which she found herself when jilted on her wedding day.

In a single figure, Dickens unites the Victorian love of ornament, in which culture celebrates and mimics the rich variety of nature, with its contemporary, the cult of remembrance. Miss Havisham’s raiment is a form of still life; clothing her in vanitas, it rots around her, externalizing her hoarded heartbreak, the treasured shrunkenness of her soul.

Coyne, however, interprets Miss Havisham as a more hopeful symbol, as beautiful, magnificent, and steadfast as she is hideous, decrepit, and obsessed. Miss Havisham is the product of a culture that has fetishized remembrance, but Coyne regards her from the perspective of one that has banished it—and is only beginning to rediscover its value. Coyne sees the problem as a question of balance. She employs the Victorian feminization of grief (representations of weeping women posed with funerary urns were commonplaces on both men’s and women’s graves) to create a new memorial art for a world in acute need of it.

In The Hour of Our Death, historian Philippe Ariès documents the progression of Western attitudes toward death. People in the Middle Ages lived in physical and spiritual proximity to the dead, while Victorians sublimated their fear of oblivion via the cult of remembrance. We’ve inherited from them the modern alienation from the inevitable. Coyne is pushing the pendulum back the other way. Her own subconscious need for remembrance was made manifest in a work she referred to informally as “the three peacocks.” It was not until a curator pointed out that there were in fact four birds on top of the structure, one being partly hidden from view at certain angles, that Coyne realized that the crowning ornaments were representations of herself and her three siblings, one of whom had just died.

Raised a devout Catholic, Coyne has created an art ecclesiastical in tone. Several of her constructions, encrusted with burned-down candle stubs, are reminiscent of the votive grids and candelabra in churches. Another piece recalls the great chandeliers that often hang incongruously in European cathedrals. Others are wreaths (Victorians fashioned memorial wreaths from flowers, feathers, or hair). Coyne also understands that the idea of art targeting the transcendent has suffered greatly at the hands of schlockmakers, particularly modern churchy types, and she’s not afraid of gilding some lilies to get past them. Reconciling us to the extreme gesture—obscuring artificial flowers, fake birds, and funereal bows under great lava flows of wax—she redeems the means of kitsch for the purposes of wonder.

Smacking of grotesquerie, her wax-frosted forms also evoke an array of edibles, from towering frosted wedding cakes to cascades of squid-ink pasta. (One also recalls Victorian wax-fruit shadowboxes, which, like their subjects, were prone to decay.) In conjoining food and sacrament, in linking effigy, idolatry, and remembrance, she is rivaled only by the late Felix Gonzales-Torres, whose candy-spill “portraits” were heaps of sweets in amounts corresponding to the weights of their subjects. Viewers were invited to take and eat.

However distinct the girls’ individual identities are, the fact that, like a Gonzales-Torres work, each piece is assembled from a gathering of smaller objects lends it also to interpretation not as a single personage but a collective entity. As some of the more conical assemblages hang toward the floor, having originated in satin sheaths streaming from the ceiling, they suggest family trees bifurcating to infinity. (Examine the bottoms of the pieces, and you don’t feel they’re necessarily finished—just that the painstakingly incremental growth that brought them this far is something you can never quite witness.)

Alternatively they suggest not only organic lines of descent, but the fashioning of the habitable environment. In her morphological complexity, a single girl, particularly one of those populated by a flock of birds clustered on the outside of a beribboned cage, evokes the many imaginary orders of Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities or a fanciful, overpopulated dwarf planet from Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince.

When the girls were considered as individual surrogates, their waxy coatings suggested Tussaudian flesh. But when the gallery is viewed as housing a group of collectives, the shared surface treatment unites disparate worlds—like Joyce’s snow at the end of Dubliners:

…falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. [Gabriel’s] soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead. CP