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Mazes abound as a visual motif at the Flux Art Fair. The viewer’s eye is invited to wind through labyrinthine lines and circuitous paths in several works. Some works just celebrate abstract geometric forms, while others explore the meaning of the crooked path.
A Short History of Mazes
The maze’s history begins with the Greek myth of Theseus, who winded through a labyrinth to vanquish the Minotaur at its center. Depictions of Theseus on extant Greek vases seldom show elaborate labyrinths. Styles changed in the Roman era as floor mosaics offered a vast space in which artists could render mazes. Vienna’s famed Theseus mosaic is celebrated as the largest and most well preserved maze from ancient art.
One thousand years after the Vienna mosaic, a labyrinth was created by masons at Chartres Cathedral. Dissociated from the Thesean myth, the maze morphed into a metaphor for Christian pilgrimage and virtue, and labyrinths were created in many cathedrals as alternate sites for pilgrimage. The crusades closed off the traditional journey to Jerusalem — it was too hostile for Europeans to travel there. The installations also championed the virtue of patience. After a long and winding path, the sojourner eventually arrived in the empty center for a culminating moment of divine illumination.
Eight hundred years after Chartres, today’s maze is a game played by the world’s richest children whose parents can afford to buy them coloring books and other luxuries. In a world disassociated from the Christian virtue of charity, UNICEF calculates that half of the world’s children — 1 billion — live in abject poverty. Similar to the medievals, the game of a maze in a coloring book rewards boys and girls for their patience. For poor children, their real life is already a maze; and they can’t afford to play in one. In the past five years, the rise of smartphone games have created new digital mazes for comfortably bored children and their procrastinating elders to wander.
The maze as form and content has inspired many artists. And the Flux Art fair reveals what contemporary artists are drawing from this history and what intrigues us about the maze in 2015.
Maze, Maze on the Wall
The most straightforward works offer labyrinthine forms in paintings and relief sculptures. Abstract geometric art is about letting go and allowing your eyes to trace all the interweaving designs, to travel its circuitous path visually. Each work has the effect of taking your gaze through a labyrinth, mimicking the medieval mode of contemplating these twists and turns as an inner journey.
Maze Into Forms
A notable variation is when artists intertwine maze forms with subject matter. Ibou Ndoye‘s glass work intertwines labyrinthine forms with African motifs while Alexis Duque depicts Hello Kitty as a maze that resembles the anti-gravitational architecture of MC Escher.
Mazes In the Air
Mazes fly in the aerial works of Jocelyn Shu and Sui Park. Their floating lines look like drawing in the air. Shu’s sculpture resembles a dandelion thrown in the air with alphabet soup — the letters jumble with the curvy lines. Park’s work is evocative of a sea anemone, jelly fish, or even a coral reef with its recurring patterns and undulating circles.
Labyrinthine forms twirl and twist out in all three dimensions in the sculptures of Margaret Roleke and Bobbi Van. Roleke’s work is created from ammunition, equivocating on gun violence and how today’s streets are a maze with modern armed minotaurs. Van explores the metaphor of twisted love by creating a heart from intertwined maze and cloud forms. When Maya Angelou encourages us to “be be a rainbow in someone else’s cloud,” she is rhapsodizing on inspiring and nurturing others in tough, twisted, clouded places.
Nomads in the Maze
The Flux Art Fair curators declared “the 21st Century Artist is a nomad” as the fair’s overarching theme. Several artists depict modern day nomads amidst maze-like forms, suggesting the circuitous and twisted path many people travel. Many figures are people of color — it’s no mystery that Americans who don’t happen to be white face adversity that feels akin to the high stakes of Theseus’s quest through the labyrinth to slay the minotaur.
For example, Andre Woolery paints three young men in shades and street clothes with a bending chevron path behind, evoking the maze through which they wind. Danielle Siegelbaum depicts a black and a white figure on a circuitous path. The white figure has the privilege of vestments and a face, while the black figure is more abstracted. Shaunte Gates depicts a woman of color blindfolded, menaced by a military aircraft and missiles, on a twisted, blood-red path strewn with a broken TV and crushed floral forms. A protective wolf rests at her feet, suggesting that despite these obstacles, the woman possesses the strength of the wolf to persevere.
American beat artist Bruce Conner once observed in an interview that New York is “like a maze, a rat maze, going from one little box to another little box and passing through passageways to get one from safe haven to another.” Several works at Flux make this survival metaphor vivid, while other works go more medieval and allow the labyrinth to float as an abstract geometric form that challenges your gaze to trace its twists and get lost in contemplation. The maze draws us in just as much as our artistic ancestors, casting adversity as surmountable and patience as divinely rewarding.
The Flux Art Fair continues at the Corn Exchange Building (81 East 125th Street, Harlem, Manhattan) through May 17.