SEPTEMBER 10 – OCTOBER 16, 2010
Judy Pfaff is one of my heroes. A resident warrior of the Post-Minimalist movement’s dawning era, her work has both defied and embraced categorization for more than 50 years. Pfaff is neither sculptor nor painter, printmaker nor draftsman. She speaks the language of two and three dimensions fluently, often skirting the line between the peripheral boundaries of each, without ever relinquishing her vision to either. Pfaff’s individual approach to the art of sculptural installation has influenced an array of contemporary female powerhouses, the likes of Jessica Stockholder and Sarah Sze included, and even stretches as far as the lucid, print-based assaults of street artist-cum-artworld darling, Swoon. To meet Pfaff in person is to understand the enigmatic nature of her work. She is a gregarious straight shooter, unpretentious in countenance, with the honed eye of an aesthete hidden in a layman’s dialect. With Judy Pfaff, what you see both is and is not what you get—and with a semi-centennial retrospective at Ameringer/McEnery/Yohe, that’s quite a lot.
With work ranging in execution between the late 1970s and the present-day, the gallery’s front room houses some of the artist’s more ambitious installations to date. Here, wall reliefs in steel wire and tin battle esoteric profusions of paper ooze as objets trouvés fight for aesthetic supremacy among circular forms and spinning disks. Meanwhile, tangles of wire (“Straw into Gold,” 1990) point to Pfaff’s whimsical welding prowess, one that evokes elaborately impure sculptural configurations with a voracious appetite for space. Amidst this breakneck visual chaos, however, is an unequivocal adherence to formal structure. “Untitled” (2010), outfitted with Chinese lanterns, floral prints, and other paper-based collage materials, tips and tilts toward the floor without letting go of its two-dimensional anchor. It is a smorgasbord of feminine bravura in pastel shades of ivory, dusky pink and butter cream—a demure monolith when compared with its adjacent companion, “Es Possible” (1989). According to Pfaff, this work was made in response to watching a soccer game in the ’80s. It is all geometry, guts, and glory—oppositionally masculine in its use of primary colors and hard-edged angularity.
Such breaches of existing architectural space give way to delicate two-dimensional paper works along the length of the gallery’s middle corridor. In these intricate and fragile montages, irregularly shaped, handmade frames gilded in gold act as the barrier between the gallery walls and the viewer. Via a networked layering of cut paper and scavenged debris, the landscapes within reveal a predilection for a simpler past. Darwinian journal clippings form the foundation of “Untitled” (2000), along with dried leaves, butterflies, and other forest-derived motifs. In other works, similar field studies are juxtaposed against tinted photographic positives—the yellowing of time captured in sepia-toned prisms. Not all of the paper-based works are so sanguine, however. “Untitled” (1999), made while Pfaff was in residence in Walla Walla, Washington, assumes apocalyptic overtones in its union of worldly inversions: the H-bomb married with the menacing image of a rattlesnake; the Santa Monica bike path at dusk. All are personal narratives, emotionally loaded markers for the passage of time, places, and life events.
Pfaff herself explains that she can determine her age at the time a work was made by looking at its construction. For example, the use of metal reveals her interest in postmodern rejections of the feminine—“Los Voces” (1992) alludes to an evocative fragility framed by a masculine aura—experienced during her tenure in Brooklyn, while floral and fauna related compositions bifurcate the artist’s increasingly complex relationship with the urbanity of New York City and the rural escape of her upstate studio. In the back room of Ameringer/McEnery/Yohe hangs a dated jewel of a piece, “Untitled (Deep Water Series)” (1980), in glitter, neon pink, and gold. Pfaff recalls making this work in her early 30s. “This one screams Canal Street to me,” she said matter-of-factly when pressed about the unorthodox execution of the painting. And while the exhibition does lack the sprawling tenacity of some of the artist’s more elaborate constructions (à la “Buckets of Rain,” 2006), such reflective departures form the crux of the retrospective’s personality.
With such a mélange of decades at play within a confined locale, it is difficult if not impossible to maintain any sense of structural consistency, yet somehow, Pfaff’s eclectic interpretation of ’80s flamboyance, ’90s insecurity, and the aughts’ incessant optimism succeeds. In Five Decades, explosion meets implosion and gut emotion confronts the formal didactics of linear gesture. With a serpentine nonchalance, Pfaff carries us through space. The result is pictorial effusion in electric form.
ContributorKara L. Rooney
Kara Rooney is a Brooklyn-based artist, writer, and critic working in performance, sculptures and new media installation. She is a Managing Art Editor for the Brooklyn Rail and faculty member at School of Visual Arts, where she teaches Art History and Aesthetics.