Haunted by God’s loophole

Doubt, Susie MacMurray, a temporary installation at Southwark Cathedral. London, constructed of butterfly nets.

I went back online recently to get another glimpse of Susie MacMurray’s masterful A Mixture of Frailties, the first work of hers that stunned me when I stumbled upon her solo exhibition at Danese/Corey seven years ago. I was delighted and a little surprised that it continues to resonate in new ways after the passage of years. This time it brought to mind, of all things, The Winged Victory of Samothrace. A frontal view of her headless figure’s prominent shoulders makes them look like sprouting wings or the stumps left behind by their amputation. This hadn’t occurred to me when I saw the actual piece at the exhibition. MacMurray built it around a tailor’s dummy—as she does with her signature garment sculptures—this time enveloping the curvy armature with limp latex gloves. On the floor, they form a train that flows outward and downward in all directions as if the garment were melting. Conversely, the figure seems to rise up out of the floor from under that network of gloves. It’s funny to see in this earthbound dress an ironic echo of the ancient sculpture’s martial grandeur, especially since this work glows with a quietly, almost self-defeating pathos all its own. The fact that you’re looking at what could be a lifetime supply—a life sentence, as it were—of dishwashing gloves both anchors and intensifies, by contrast, the work’s unlikely glory. By creating a ballroom gown out of them, she magically transforms all those flaccid tubes into a spectacular vestment—female power constructed with reminders of male impotence. That’s either a wry sort of Jacobin feminism or honest testimony about how little power any of us actually have. I tend toward the latter. With MacMurray, what looks like an apotheosis always comes with amusing asterisks. The way this dazzling matrix of frailties rises up from the floor, ready for lift-off, seems to echo the triumphant flight promised in the Greek sculpture, but our glove lady isn’t getting airborne any time soon. She is both imprisoned and glorified by all the chores she would love to flee. Feminist interpretations aside, what seems to be embodied here is something wiser and more universal. This beatification of scut work embodies a rare insight into the dignity and worth of long subservience and surrender to a humble task.

All of these impressions reconfirmed for me that much of MacMurray’s work has to do with the unity of polarities in life—in this case, how drudgery and imprisonment and servitude can actually clothe triumph and transformation, or at least can be transmuted to reveal them. A similar truth lies at the heart of the world’s wisdom traditions: the identity of form and emptiness in Buddhism, as well as the notion that your everyday mind is the Buddha, for one. In a different way, the Beatitudes hint at paradoxical realities—the last shall be first—set within a more dramatic spiritual narrative. One can find other corollaries. Her wisdom applies to art-making itself, pointing toward a seminal realization for practicing artists of how the freedom of creative expression dwells within the tedium of repetition, craft and patience. MacMurray’s work requires a great deal of all three. For her, it’s meditative. This equivalence of triumph and drudgery applies to her installations as much as, if not more than, the work of a guru of art-as-process such as Chuck Close. His words are well known: “Inspiration is for amateurs, the rest of us just show up and get to work.” The paradox of the work ethic itself is that what’s good in life can’t be severed from often tedious labor. The process of making one of her pieces embodies this paradox: Medusa required a year to make,

one tiny copper ring at a time, shaped into a circle and clasped together by hand into chain mail. The result is spectacular and humbling. Many of her large-scale installations depend on repetitive, assiduous devotion to handiwork—assembling large quantities of everyday objects until they bathe the space they occupy with a kind of sentience, as if the hosting building has become self-aware, through the work, of the human vulnerabilities it shelters.

In Shells, MacMurray embossed an entire staircase at Pallant House in Chichester with slightly-opened mussel shells stuffed with red velvet in suggestive folds. The work was a compassionate homage to the wife who lived unhappily there after her husband built the town house in 1712: each shell an emblem of sexual readiness and frustration. Each of those 20,000 shells had to be carefully pried open—just a bit—so that they could adhere close to the hinge of the valves, even though parted at the lips enough to let the red velvet bulge outward from inside, a brilliant cluster of contrary implications in such a simple pairing of materials. One might observe drily that it’s a slightly less metaphysical take on unconsummated love than, say, Ode on a Grecian Urn, but it inspires awe, just the same. Again, the idea—pairing the shells with the scraps of velvet—makes it all possible, but the hours of labor needed to realize the idea gives its embodiment a gravity that serves as counterweight to this temporary installation’s ever hopeful climb toward the sky, or at least the ghost of a second-floor bedroom. As they ascend, all those shells whisper life is never quite what you want it to be, now, is it? Her most ominous installation, Doubt, depended on the patience required to assemble a surfeit of butterfly nets into a vaguely apocalyptic swarm, a cloud of shadows hovering in the vault of Southwark Cathedral in London. Again, this weightless specter floats overhead, a dark angel, but it’s contained by the walls around it—the emptiness of the cathedral becomes a disposal for what everyone sheds in this place, or else that effluvium overhead is what keeps them from rising up from the floor. And again, butterfly nets no less, reminder of both the insect’s transformation into a beautiful freedom as well as its trap.

Her wit has a crystalline simplicity. But there’s obviously something deeper than humor finding a home in her lovely ironies. She is powerful and clear-eyed about human limitations, while suggesting that those limitations aren’t necessarily what they seem. The paradoxes inherent in her formal innovations bring to your lips a smile of amusement but there’s also a sense somehow, in her work, of simple gratitude for what all this labor conveys. She lives for the epiphany of formal discovery, the gift of spotting new materials that give rise to what she makes. A waterfall of hair nets. A flock of fish hooks. A nest of wax eggs. But the long days or weeks or months of doing the same thing over and over gives her work its power. Sol LeWitt could have scribbled a note saying: “assemble little copper rings into chain mail in the shape of a woman deploying snakes at her feet” and have called his little memorandum conceptual art. Jeff Koons could do the same, in his own way. But reading that note—or having someone’s minions alone carry out the work order—wouldn’t have had quite the same impact. (MacMurray does rely on helpers occasionally with her most involved projects.) Sometimes the best discoveries for her come at the end of the process of making an installation—the idea at the start doesn’t come close to expressing the impact of the completed effort. She stands back and looks at the finished piece and thinks, oh, so that’s where all this labor was leading . . . the embodiment exceeds the idea that spawned it.

About her current show, Murmur, at Pangolin London (until Dec. 22) she said recently that, in the back of her mind, many of her themes have been intensified by the current pandemic and lockdowns. Notions of flight, liberation, imprisonment, dread, mortality, safety and risk. In Murmur, she also glances toward her own life as a mother, and in the context of motherhood all these themes seem to be multiplied exponentially. It’s one thing to recognize the perils and rewards of human life in oneself, but the stakes become so much more potentially heartbreaking when you see them in the life of your own children. The joys and anxieties of parenthood represent one of the central themes of this show.

 

Her sense of life, of the limitations that derive ultimately from mortality—reminds me vaguely of a scene I saw recently in a new Russian series on Netflix, To The Lake, shot in and around Moscow. In one of the later episodes, an Orthodox monk encounters refugees from a plague, and before he wanders back to the little church he seems to have built by hand, a little sacred gallery for crude icons he’s painted, one of the fugitive women button-holes him and begs him to pray for the child she has lost. He asks her if the child had been baptized. She says no. He says, “I can’t. But you can. Only the mother can pray.” I’d never heard of that tradition, but it was a remarkable moment full of disquieting contradictions and the interesting notion that motherhood is God’s loophole. God won’t accept a monk’s prayer for a baby? Say what? A mother can communicate with God in a way that even a monk can’t? No one else in the world is allowed to put in a request for help? How is that fair? These two characters accept it though, and there’s a thankfulness in their silence acceptance of life’s long odds. One thinks of all the cruel restrictions of the current pandemic, children unable to be at the death bed of their parents. The world has narrowed as a result of strange, seemingly inhumane rules imposed with benevolent designs. But still. (If someone had told me I couldn’t be at my father’s bedside when he died last year, for any reason whatsoever, I would have been tempted to buy my first gun and use it to open negotiations about palliative care.) With the young mother and the monk, there was so much human vulnerability and willingness to entertain one last opportunity for hope concentrated into a brief exchange on the road. The monk’s gentle solicitude and compassion spoke volumes about the pathos of a human soul’s predicament.

Somehow these qualities seem companionable with the spirit that informs much of what MacMurray has included in her show: the emotional risks and lowly tasks of parenthood. When it comes to motherhood, her imagery is closer to a Matthew Barney Cremaster vitrine than a Mary Cassatt mother-and-child, but some of the pieces feel like visualizations of terse, tough Blakean axioms: for every egg, a hook.

Murmur is built around its eponymous work, a mobile-like assembly of ostrich feathers, fish hooks and wire that extend for the entire length of the gallery. It’s a variation on her native theme: the inseparable pairing of freedom and the bonds of daily life. Like musical notes on a staff, a nod to MacMurray’s previous career as an orchestral musician, each of these feathered barbs seems to float upward, from left to right. They are tipped with little wax beads, rather than the hooks one would expect if they had been tied together for fly fishing. Yet, at a slight distance from each feather, the fishhooks help establish the feather’s place and its relationship with the others. They seem to float upward like dandelion seeds or birds, but (and this is what makes it a MacMurray) those hooks are sure to snag on something, such as their maker’s fingertips. One thinks of children, having been raised, setting off into the world but never fully detaching from their parents—and this note gets sounded throughout Murmur, with one piece after another referring to mothers, child-rearing, and the complexities of parenthood.

Susie emailed me last week to invite me to her live conversation, via the Internet, with the gallery’s director, Polly Bielecka, at the opening of her show. During the live video stream, she talked with the gallery’s owner about most of the work on display, and though it was no substitute for actually seeing the work, it offered an indication of the pleasures it affords. Her answer to one question focused on parenthood in relation to a small construction in which she attached a slice of deer antler to a wax ball:

This is Mother and Child, one of the small pieces I made during lockdown. There’s something about going from the scale that’s immersive to something that’s so small you have to protect and hold it in your hands. When I was going through the antlers I had collected I came across this one which is a first-year prong from a culled deer. There’s even a little piece of hair left on it. It made me think of mothers and children and the violent act of that baby being gone. It made me think of umbilical cords and apron strings. It’s another wax ball that’s reassuring. And I found it poignant and wanted to give it something to hang onto. It’s like Murmur, the joy of seeing (the little ones) take off into the world and the desolation of being left behind. How do you deal with those things? The world is a terrifying place as well as a wonderful place. The work I make is a constant reassurance to myself that both of those things belong together. How can I still exist after my children are gone? But I do, and it’s good, as well as frightening.

What I’m waiting for is the solo exhibition, years from now, when she assembles all of her garment sculptures into one place, if she continues to construct them as she likely will, slowly and painstakingly, over the next decade. In her conversation, she hinted at the next one, entitled Stalker. I can’t wait to see it.

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