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“The Pervasiveness of Memory”

he Pervasiveness of Memory” is an exhibition of works by four contemporary sculptors who occupy a subcategory of commodity fetishism that might be labeled “nostalgic icons.” These artists create objects and installations that rely heavily on the emotional and cultural associations that viewers bring to the works’ components. Their raw materials are the signifiers of childhood and coming of age, and their critique is rooted in the body rather than the intellect.

The show is part of an ongoing series at the Corcoran’s Gallery One that regularly brings cutting-edge national and international artists to Washington. Though the cutting edge is actually fairly narrow, the Gallery One shows are an important indicator of the art issues of the day. “The Pervasiveness of Memory” makes up part of a miniseries within the larger sequence, joining 1992’s “The Body Electric” and 1993’s “Reverberations” to form a trilogy of shows by women sculptors who combine a postmodern interest in narrative and autobiography with feminist critiques of the body as text and a worldview sited in corporeal knowledge and experience.

The artists in “Memory”—Margeaux, Ann Messner, Elizabeth Newman, and Lucy Puls—refer to the body obliquely. It rarely, if ever, appears, but when it does, its associations refer to childhood—when the care and survival of the body dominate experience. In this show, Lucy Puls’ Summa Perfectionis Species (Brooke) includes a doll’s head, and Ann Messner’s Complex, a couple of wax ears. Otherwise, the body is invoked only by allusions to its coverings and activities. As with most effective work in this genre, these sculptures are most satisfying when they are least direct in their references.

Indirect is not the same as unspecific, however. It’s the contrast of concrete materials and abstract references—however disjunctive and unexpected—that gives such work its characteristic punch. For example, Margeaux’s Baby Shoes embeds a pair of white leather baby shoes in the sheets of hammered metal that line a battered shoeshine box. Her Fragments of the Self, Delicately Arranged presents a glass-fronted cabinet on whose shelves sit jars filled with blurred, fabric-wrapped photographs of a face. In both works, self-discovery and discipline intertwine in compelling yet undogmatic ways.

Knowledge, both of self and the world, is the theme of many of these works. Messner’s Complex and Puls’ Editio Vulgata (Webster’s Student Dictionary) and In Toto (Cursive to Britannicia) engage it most directly. Complex is an overt homage to Louise Bourgeois, whose retrospective at the Corcoran last fall covered much of the same terrain as these younger artists. In Messner’s construction, a cage of iron bars to which wax ears are affixed is surrounded by a curtain of fiberglass. A tube of the fiberglass fabric emerges from one side of the curtain and falls mysteriously to the floor. Like Bourgeois’ best work, Complex is instantly understandable, but impossible to “explain.” It explores such issues as isolation, security, and the struggle for understanding—issues that reverberate through the exhibition.

The baffling and often deceptive process of learning is among the references at work in two Puls installations that use old book or dictionary pages. For Editio Vulgata, she has constructed two sets of quiltlike tapestries made of book pages glued to sheets of netting and hung eight layers deep from metal rods set into the wall—the dictionary pages cover the netting like quilt squares. Some of the pages are legible, others have been obliterated by blue paint, and the ink on some has dissolved. On the front of the right-hand set is a color-printed page showing the classification of butterflies. In this work, concealment, revelation, indoctrination, and the structure of knowledge are simultaneously deconstructed and evoked. Puls’ In Toto also employs text, but her printed segments are bound in variously shaped wooden frames: Some lean against the walls, some hang, some overlap. A broad, cursive script has been sprayed across the text surface. A few letters are discernible, but for the most part what appears are fragments of the script’s arabesque gesture. The illegible handwriting falls over the printed text like a shadow, and the text itself has been effaced.

Messner’s Petrified Forest occupies related emotional terrain. This five-part work is made of cast iron, bronze, and wax. There’s a mixture of the mass-produced (neoclassical wastebaskets), the organic (tree roots), and the constructed (a child’s chair and a pair of binoculars). Roots sprout from the eyepiece of the binoculars and from the bottom of the child’s chair, which is suspended about six feet above the gallery floor. One trash can—whose fluted edges resemble those of a classical column—is intact; a second is split in half. A third half-can contains more roots. This installation is the most directly iconic in the show, deriving visual potency from its materials and psychological intensity from the surprisingly archetypal functioning of the forms—particularly the binocular-and-root juxtaposition.

Another object with both iconic and surrealistic overtones is Puls’ Summa Perfectionis Species (Brooke), which consists of a doll’s head on a steel shelf seven feet above the ground. From the head, a thick hank of brown hair descends to the floor. This work, along with Newman’s Untitled (scarred hides), invokes an unease that derives not so much from its contrast of material and form as its narrative implications. Puls’ doll’s head and Newman’s scarred leather (encased in frames that resemble those used in X-ray machines) both suggest rituals of judgment, artifice, and investigation.

Because many of the sculptural components of this genre are “found objects,” it has become customary to trace the works’ descent from Marcel Duchamp’s notorious “readymades.” The shock produced by the readymades resulted from transposing mass-produced objects from a commercial environment to an aesthetic one. The shift in site liberated the objects’ potential for psychological stimulation rather than any indwelling property of the snow shovels, bottle racks, or urinals themselves. Subsequent viewers, influenced by the rapid expansion of acceptable forms in 20th-century sculpture, appreciate those Duchampian rearrangements in a way that the artist could not have foreseen.

The more relevant antecedent for these contemporary sculptors’ work is Meret Oppenheim’s 1936 Fur-lined Teacup, Saucer, and Spoon, in which significant objects are constructed in a radically disorienting material. To this influence is added the work of Bourgeois—whose sources, in addition to autobiography, are tribal sculpture and existentialism—and Eva Hesse, whose works of the late ’60s revolutionized modern sculpture even as they mirrored her haunted reflections on the demands of art and the necessity of female self-determination.

As demonstrated by the works in “The Pervasiveness of Memory” and the two related exhibitions that preceded it at the Corcoran, there has developed from such sources a major strand of modern sculpture that combines formal and narrative/psychological components well suited for examining the late-20th-century condition. As that condition is increasingly revealed as non-heroic and pervaded by suffering, it’s understandable and perhaps inevitable that an aesthetic critique rooted in the functions and vulnerabilities of the female body would emerge to represent it. Consequently, the worldview presented by nostalgic icons is neither a self-pitying nor sentimental one, but an unflinchingly honest appraisal that takes into account the fact that nostalgia’s Greek root means “the pain of returning home.”