Menial and romantic

A Mixture of Frailties, Susie MacMurray

A Mixture of Frailties, Susie MacMurray

If you want to marvel at how rubber gloves and fishhooks can be turned into fascinating works of art, check out Susie MacMurray’s current show at Danese Corey. The gallery opened in a new location only a few weeks ago. I stumbled onto it last Thursday while walking past its large street-level windows on West 22nd. I was on my guard against the cool, impersonal feel of the show, which at first had the familiar white-cube redolence of chilly and cerebral, high-end formalities, but it won me over. It’s a beautiful show in a wonderful and much larger space than Danese used to occupy, and the place is perfectly suited to MacMurray’s spare, less-is-more constructions. The artist’s ability to create a sense of poised expectancy out of the most ordinary and humble materials is remarkable. She works in a repetitive range of shapes, using craft shop and household supplies: dollops and teardrops of wax, thin-gauge wire, hooks, hairnets, rubber kitchen gloves, air compressor hoses, and—my favorite—knitting pins. She returns again and again to a tight range of materials: fishhooks, wax teardrops and the knitting pins. In a few cases, her work reflects her previous career as a musician, such as the assembly of those pins dollopsbearing what look like conical spinning tops made of wax. Arranged in dozens across one wall, they suggest, collectively, the lines and clefs of musical notation. These slight, long pins have small eyes, like skewer handles, which she pierces with her fishhooks bearing much larger dollops of wax. Rows of those identical dollops dangle in mid-air like topsy-turvy raindrops—or pendant earrings. Those pins, though, are alive. They bristle from a wall like acupuncture needles, arching as they seem to pull back against gravity.

As in so much of her work, there’s an energy in the paucity of means. The show is almost devoid of color: all black, silver, milk, cream, and gray. An emotional impact radiates quietly from the effect of seeing something that almost isn’t there—so much of the work relies on a sense of empty space around and within her shapes. What could be a black beehive with stinging defenders swooping down and out, leaving black trails in their wake, could also be a dead peacock, with only tiny fishhook eyes in its furled tail. The whole thing could also be a swollen cat ‘o nine tails. Her work is often ominous and strangely sexual but always elegant and beguiling. The grandest of all is the life-sized formal gown she created out of 1400 latex work gloves. It flows down the hourglass torso of its tailor’s mannequin, into which, presumably, each glove has been carefully stapled or glued. Only the fingertips of the gloves show in shingled tiers that flow downward to the floor and then spread out in all directions. It’s a dazzling transformation, and yet . . . all those fingertips with no one’s hand to hold. (There is another way to interpret those limp shapes as well, in just as forlorn a way.) There’s a poignancy in her choice of materials— commonplace elements of manual labor, much of it for what used to be called “women’s work”—and when you recognize this, the show begins to glow with a kind of fairy-tale magic. In this room, a prince might turn his head to study a woman wearing the gloves she used to wash dishes for a thousand and one nights before she stitched them into a gown. (The drapes, apparently, weren’t available.) Everything here has its own Cinderella resume, its own double life—both menial and romantic. As in every good fairy tale, the enchantments have little hints of penalty around the edges, but they’re harmless, fixed in place. The snake curled up on the floor has no head and only chainmail aluminum scales, assembled by hand.  The housework is only a dim memory. The hooks and pins won’t snag anyone’s finger here where touching isn’t allowed.

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