Carol Bove’s “RA, or Why is an orange like a bell?” and “Qor Corporation: Lionel Ziprin, Harry Smith and the Inner Language of Laminates”

Ginny Kollak

September 25, 2013
Maccarone, New York
September 7–October 19, 2013

Riddle me this: Just what is it that continues to make Carol Bove’s focused yet multifaceted sculptural practice so uniquely satisfying?

A simple answer might start with her materials—a carefully calibrated mix of concrete cubes and I-beams, petrified wood and peacock feathers, geometric figures fashioned in delicate brass and powder-coated steel, and well-thumbed paperback books and other esoteric ephemera. These items come together in shelf works, sculptural assemblages, and exhibition tableaux that read equally as modern and ancient, industrial and organic, utopian and brutal, hopeful and melancholic. Then there is the mythology of their origin to consider—either in Bove’s Northern California upbringing or her current life within the post-industrial wilderness of South Brooklyn, where materials like driftwood and desiccated mattresses literally wash up at her feet. (Both of which are part of the artist’s exhibition “The Equinox,” which is on view at the Museum of Modern Art in New York until January 12, 2014.) But there is also something else at work. A productive vagueness animates all of Bove’s work from the last decade or so, meandering between familiarity and enigma while engaging the viewer’s attention at both conscious and subconscious levels.

Those two registers of understanding—the analytic and the intuitive—are pushed toward one another in the pair of exhibitions Bove now has on view at Maccarone. The first is a presentation of the artist’s recent sculptures interspersed with a handful of works by other artists, including Richard Berger’s 1976 sculptural recreation of his Chesterfield sofa made up entirely of lead droplets suspended in mid-air by different lengths of monofilament, a small painting by the versatile Harry Smith, and a vitrine of unattributed visionary drawings from the Lionel Ziprin archive. The exhibition has the puzzling title: “RA, or Why is an orange like a bell?” And, indeed, why is an orange like a bell? As it turns out, this is the question the Riddler poses in the very first episode of the original Batman television series; and it is Robin who ultimately provides the homophonic answer: “because they both must be peeled/pealed.”

In approaching Bove’s sculptures, one can either choose to play the game of peeling back the layers of cultural and formal references to their juicy interiors, or simply let the arcane allusions resonate on their own, filling the space with meditative power. There is no single correct answer, and there are rewards in both methods of engagement. Peel’s foe, not a set animal, laminates a tone of sleep (2013) is a thick pillar of concrete, its top half interrupted by a crystalline lattice of stacked brass cubes that alternately seem to dissolve away or explode into a beautiful, but almost cancerous bloom. The name of the sculpture, meanwhile, offers a bounty of clues in exchange for some casual research. While it plays off the answer to the riddle of the orange and the bell, the work’s title most likely comes from the bizarre, palindromic lyrics on John Greaves and Peter Blegvad’s obscure 1976 concept album Kew. Rhone. In the lyrics and in Bove’s sculpture, “Peel’s Foe” could refer to the fossilized mastodon skeleton excavated in 1801 in New York’s Hudson Valley by Charles Wilson Peale, founder of the first American museum of art and natural history. The imagined (and admittedly anthropomorphic) indignation of Peale’s mastodon at being awoken from slumber in order to serve as a mere set piece points to a possible antagonism within museum culture between the object and its method of display. But it also focuses attention on the nearby Untitled (2013), an awe-inspiring chunk of prehistoric petrified wood affixed like a torso or a totem to an upright steel beam. The massive specimen—reading more like a femur than the trunk of a tree—is a reminder of the pure, almost alchemical transformation that wood undergoes during petrification—when minerals slowly replace organic matter, and only a perfect stone remains.

Elsewhere in the gallery, two sculptures made out of white enameled steel—Solar Feminine and Hieroglyph (both 2013)—counter this metaphysical brew. Like oversized corkscrews, their spiraling forms have been a feature of Bove’s work since her conception of several outdoor commissions, first for Documenta 13 in 2012, and currently for the as-yet-undeveloped Rail Yards section of the High Line in New York. Built from rule-based configurations of half circles and short, straight lines, the sculptures’ forms are elegant (the artist refers to them as “glyphs”), yet also slightly awkward—tendering a human touch to the otherwise limited formulae found in most of the public art one encounters in plazas and parks worldwide. The relational nature of public art also surfaces in the updated display of Flora’s Garden II (2012–13), another sculpture made from I-beams, concrete, and brass boxes that appear to self-replicate. Attacked by vandals while on view in Kassel last year, the bent and broken brass pieces of the work are now laid out on an adjacent platform like Sol LeWitt’s Variations of Incomplete Open Cubes (1974).

The second exhibition, which is curated by Bove and the Bay Area rare book dealer Philip Smith, is a straightforward presentation of selections from the archive of Lionel Ziprin—an under-recognized, but hugely influential artistic figure of the New York postwar years—and his Qor Corporation. Ziprin was a prolific poet, bohemian businessman, student of the Kabbalah, and friend to countless artists and musicians. Together with his wife Joanne (herself a brilliantly oddball graphic artist), he led an enclave of like-minded spiritual seekers and creative nonconformists from his apartment-based salon on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Among the Ziprins’ closest cohorts was the artist Harry Smith, who was by then already well-known for his inventive animated films, not to mention his 1952 Anthology of American Folk Music, a multi-volume compilation of folk, blues, and country music. Smith was also instrumental within the Qor Corporation, a start-up company that operated from 1958 to 1962 and developed processes for making intricate, reverse-printed designs on Mylar laminates. “Qor Corporation: Lionel Ziprin, Harry Smith and the Inner Language of Laminates” focuses on Smith’s contributions to the enterprise, including his colorful mock-ups for decorated tiles and dozens of drawings and collaborative doodles of the kabbalistic “Tree of Life”—a symbolic, geometric diagram used to describe the flow of creative energy from a Divine Source to its distillation in the material world.

The “Tree of Life” may, in fact, lie at the heart of both of these exhibitions. As a map of the creation of the universe in its macrocosmic form, the symbol’s symmetries and patterns become a source for harmonic compositions on a microcosmic scale—including works of art. There is something undeniably Edenic, whether intentional or not, in Bove’s repeated use of the sculpture garden as a motif and muse for her work. She may have indeed tapped into the energy of a kind of universal abstraction by exploring this prelapsarian state, one that satiates a hunger that generally goes unnoticed until it is by chance fulfilled.

Sculpture, Nature & Ecology, Drawing, Religion & Spirituality
Public Art, Libraries & Archives

Ginny Kollak is a curator and writer based in Philadelphia. She is curator of exhibitions at the Berman Museum of Art at Ursinus College in Pennsylvania.

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September 25, 2013

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