The Greenhouse in the Anvil
Elizabeth Alexander calls it liquid – the spindrift that erupts across her sculptures and installations. To make the spilling shapes she exactos her patterns from paper or she laser-cuts cast acrylic into a kind of poured lace. It decorates her objects, baroques them; but also makes them hazy, seduces the eye into following the drips and jets and not what’s behind them, fuzzing the original thing.
“I’m interested in the perception of space – the identity of objects in space,” she says, explaining how, to make an object noticeable, you may need to mess it up a little, make it harder to see, and consequently urge your viewers toward clarity, make them squint for it.
The liquid can resemble a heap of petrified flowers and a tendril of leaves, as it does in the grill of a painted and glitzed Pontiac in “Upwardly Mobile.” Or it might be cut from wallpaper (with matching negative space sandblasted into a tea service) as in “Keeping Up Appearances.” Or, like “Faux Piano,” it may be Pollock-splattered contact paper. It’s evocations include but are not limited to lamina and hold-fast, leaves in piles, a single layer of reality peeled away like a skin.
Elizabeth had a little time to visit with me last week during the Feast of Saint Anthony in Gloucester. As burly guys with painted faces trudged uphill past her studio, she explained her early interest in fairy tales, how she thought, as a child, that she was any day about to step into the life of an enchanted princess; and how the pictures that unfolded in her mind then continue emerging in her work. “I like the darkness of fairy tales. That darkness makes sense to me in terms of narrative.” The liquid has its fairy double in the creeping rot of Sleeping Beauty’s castle, or the icy emanations of Hans Christian Anderson’s Snow Queen.
But with pieces like “Upward Mobility” I find myself thinking of Havana, St. Petersburg, all those photographs of crumbling opulent palaces – these pre-modern places, deteriorating like 19th century radiation. She nodded as I explained my reaction, seated in the center of her small studio, petting Chez the excitable foxhound. “Yeah. I’m asking that. But one person’s deterioration is another person’s growth. So I’m exploring deterioration and growth, but also where they meet.”
There are few happy accidents in her work. Generally, once she gets her hands on an object that she knows she’ll want to work with (she finds them everywhere – junkyards, streetsides) she meditates and mentally paints. “I tend to obsess over things,” she says, “I don’t sit down and plan the details. I’ll basically have an object and stare at it for a really long time. For example, with ‘Upward Mobility’ I knew I wanted to victorianize a car interior and so I just had to figure out what materials I was going to use.” And those materials might come from anywhere, like surplus stock discarded by manufacturers (“I’ve learned to just call up and ask for what I want”). Once she has the stuff on hand, she works obsessively, single-mindedly; and she’s always working.
No sketches, just notes – mostly on a computer. Once she’s clear on what she’s making and how she’s making it, she doesn’t let up until she’s finished. I told her I found this kind of drive pretty common among the most of the successful artists that I knew. “We’re makers,” she said, “and we figure out any means to do what we want to do.”
On the far wall of her studio, Elizabeth displays some of her newest work, a series of white 3-dimentional hangings made of a welding helmet and a face shield. They evoke mounted heads, though they’re transparent and surrounded by carved soapstone. Soapstone is what welders use to mark and make notes on steel. Elizabeth’s father was a welder so bits of soapstone were always turning up in the clothes dryer when she was a girl. Her dad owned a steel fabrication business in Hopedale Massachusetts, though Elizabeth wasn’t interested in working with large construction projects until she got to college. “I only liked the impressionists; I wanted to be a ceramicist,” she remembers. “But when I decided to take a welding class my dad freaked out and made me learn from him. And working with him shaped a lot of my understanding of structure and execution.”
Now she’s making a greenhouse shaped like an anvil. This on the heels of her “Tool Series,” a work on paper in which she traced and cut thin, filigreed liquid tendrils from thick paper, then looped them around mounted tools (hammer, caliper). The negative space made by slicing demarcates their shape – like the work accomplished by tools, it’s both visible in its completion and invisible in its specifics. The tools themselves are obscured as tools, but of course this makes us look at them all the more closely, try to see them for what they are. It’s fairy tale stuff that grips and surrounds them, yes, but it’s also a metaphor—in fairy tales too—for the action of time and space, for what moves rot and what ushers out of it life.
John Cotter‘s novel Under the Small Lights was published by Miami University Press in 2010. He is a founding editor at Open Letters Monthly