THE PROPOSITION | NOVEMBER 17 – DECEMBER 16, 2012
Peggy Cyphers has put on a show of startling originality at the Proposition, located nearby the New Museum on the Lower East Side. The artist, who has more than three decades of experience living and working in New York, calls the exhibition Animal Spirits, in reference to the creatures symbolized by feathers or fur or claws in her compositions. As a painter interested in challenging her audience, Cyphers here has locked in the standpoint of her field of view, so that the viewer’s outlook occurs as if he were looking upward toward a sky separating four images, each occupying a corner of the painting. Although the names of the paintings are often the names of animals, there is, as well, the feeling that one has raised his head in the midst of a canyon surrounded by dark buildings—a common experience in New York City. This may not be the artist’s intention, but the sky imagery keeping the abstracted animal pictures apart does give the sense that the perspective is skewed vertically and not horizontally. It is sometimes hard to know what to make of the work, in part because its surface has several differing orientations. But somehow—and this is to Cyphers’s credit—the riddles command the audience’s attention, even when the overall gestalt is uncertain, both formally and thematically.
In “Dove” (2012), the painting appears to have been made by rotating the sides, so that the picture’s orientation varies from one image to the next. In the lower right corner curled grayish-brown forms occur; above, in the upper right, abstract forms with a tooth-like edge appear to be hanging downwards from the top of the painting. In the lower left, tubes of some sort are bunched together, while above them, in the upper left, the viewer finds a furry mass with small, brown icicle-like or small claw forms curling around its edge. One hesitates to say which animal these parts of the painting belong to, but this only magnifies the mystery of the overall effect. Separating the four quadrants is a gray sky that naturally forms the semblance of a cross—an image that takes place in most of the paintings. Whatever specific references they point to, the canvases convey a sense of eerie otherness. In “Floaters” (2012), the imagery appears to be more about rock formations, with the four ascending columns ending in foliage of some sort. Here Cyphers has applied sand and gold leaf to complicate the surface. And unlike “Dove,” the sky is blue.
In “Storm Glider Hawk” (2012), there is the suggestion of feathers, along with rectangular stones forming a hill on the lower left, and mountainous masses in the upper left and lower right. Yet the masses are formed by patterns of columns with curled tops—images that suggest, in some way, a human presence as opposed to the presentation of nature alone. The sky in “Storm Glider Hawk” is heavy and gray; we get a glimpse of the coming storm. Part abstraction, part nature, part cultivated pattern, the work eschews symbolism in favor of presenting something difficult to grasp. Yet despite the obscurity, Cyphers clearly has a specific event or image in her mind. In “Silver Spirit” (2012), silver and gold leaf enliven what looks very much like rock formations of different colors—gray, blue, tan. Posed halfway between abstract patterning and geological reference, “Silver Spirit” reminds us that painting is still capable of capturing our interest, despite the funerary orations that the medium is dead. Cyphers makes it clear that she has opted for a double awareness, in which non-objective insight vies with close scrutiny of the natural world.
2 Extra Pl. // NY, NY
Jonathan Goodman is a teacher and author specializing in Asian art, about which he has been writing for more than twenty years.