The bubbly, condensed Century Gothic sans serif font used on the 106 Green website to announce Leah Tacha: Fix Up, Look Sharp is the kind of typography you see on the cover of middlebrow fashion magazines from a few decades past. But fear not: this exhibition has as much to do with makeovers as Sean Scully’s “Wall of Light” paintings are about masonry.
Yes, a strong sense of the human figure — particularly the female figure — undergirds these seven sculptures and four works on paper (all dated 2016), along with an appetite for contrasting textures and a flair for recombining patterns and images. But this resourceful artist is in a zone of her own, tapping into the jangly hedonism of fashion without a whiff of its self-importance and insularity.
The excitement here is that Tacha draws on a range of apparently contradictory or discontinuous sources, including Russian Constructivist collage, Japanese design aesthetics, antique Classical pottery, and postmodern appropriation, and makes the mashup work. She doesn’t poach styles or genres for their own sake, or just to show that she knows about them. She has found a personal through-line in her enthusiasms that allows her to both plumb her moment and link to our collective past.
Tacha comes from Lawrence, Kansas, by way of the Cleveland Institute of Art and SUNY Purchase. In her New York solo debut at Sardine in Brooklyn two years ago, she showed a number of painted and glazed ceramic vessels with glossy, poster-sized, somewhat cryptic photographs rolled up and thrust into their mouths. In most of them, the photo’s slightly tapered tubular form extended the profile and palette of the vessel (the show was called Trophy) upward a couple of feet or so, without calling much attention to the seam between the two. They are equally elegant and weird.
In the current show, a piece called “Sharp Shooter” is very much in that vein. The glazed and painted ceramic pot is a squat, small-handled version of a Greek amphora, its mouth about the same diameter as its base; a crescent-shaped opening in its swelling midsection reveals a glimpse of a complex work on paper that, rolled up and inserted into the vessel as is Tacha’s wont, sticks up out of the pot to a height of nearly three feet. Primarily black and white, “Sharp Shooter” is judiciously punctuated with yellow and blue. The crescent-shaped hole in the pot doubles as an eye. It allows us to see the paper inside, but the image on the roll, other than a fragmentary grayish jumble of overlapping patterns, bits of photos (water, leaves), and febrile graphite mark-making, remains largely hidden from view. Somehow, that’s not annoying.
Fortunately for inquiring minds, two (presumably) related works on paper hang nearby. Titled “Going At It” and “Players,” each is 51 by 36 inches; functionally collages, they are actually combinations of pronto plate lithography, intaglio, and chine collé. Both are loosely but convincingly figurative — compositionally related to head, torso and limbs, composed of elements such as a sooty basket-weave abstraction and strips of silver foil. Imagery is culled from print-media sources like magazine ads, of which sections are repeated (Tacha likes to clone-stamp), their contrast levels pushed to the extent that they almost lose their mimetic function, becoming strongly graphic patterning. The interplay of the flat work and the sculptural objects is fluid. Curator Jon Lutz characterizes the prints — elaborate, but not belabored — as “proposals” for sculptures, and the term is apt: they seem both concrete and mutable. One might even call them hypotheses.
The dominant motif in “Players” is derived in part from an ad for some absurdly floral designer outfit. How do I even know that? A ‘zine accompanying the show is its Rosetta Stone: reproducing what look to be sketchbook pages, it clarifies Tacha’s penchant for tinkering with photos of the clothed human form in motion (and in contrived poses). It also reveals the source: a comfy-looking jumpsuit, with a meandering, Marimekko-esque black and white stripe, which appears in several works.
In a stoke of installation genius, “Sharp Shooter” and five other pedestal-based works are arranged in a row that starts flush against one wall and advances into the center of this compact space; lined up, they look a bit like models on a runway. These five sculptures push harder at discontinuity than “Sharp Shooter,” making more of their hybridity.
By its title, “Secret Keeper” makes the point (perhaps too) plain that we are not meant to know much about the glossy digital C-print that’s rolled and suspended within its two-tiered, shell-like form; we’re good with that because there’s plenty of Tacha’s signature blend of bordering-on-representational visuals screenprinted onto the outside surfaces.
And we are less interested in the “secret” iconography of the print than in how it functions as both a sculptural and a narrative element. “Yeller,” in contrast to the controlled symmetry exerted by “Secret Keeper,” looks impaled by the tapered roll of the print. The smallest work in the show at eight inches high, “Yeller” has a disproportionately big mouth, a second neck opposite it for balance, and a javelin of paper piercing its larger lip. Meanwhile, at nearly four feet high, “We Ride” towers over the other pedestal-based works (and most viewers). Like a staff or stele, it is ceremonial in form. At the top, slipped into slots in the clay, are small horseshoe-shaped panels laminated with shadowy photos of stallions (thanks again to the ‘zine).
From the bottom up, “Quick Moves” comprises a sleek little base, a plump abdomen covered with ceramic hair, feathers or scales (pick one), and a little funnel form at the top; the expected tube of paper is replaced by one of brass, thin as a tendril, that describes a lovely loop the size of your head. There is the feeling of ikebana about it; the work makes explicit a certain latter-day Japonisme to the exhibition that otherwise would likely have eluded my notice.
Completing the installation are “Smoker,” a semicircular C-print (of wrinkled fabric, maybe) grafted onto a scaly, glazed ceramic pot so suggestive of sentience that it looks as if it might start to waddle, and two related prints, “Swimmer” and “Late Thoughts.” The blade-shaped curve in “Smoker” is recontextualized in “Late Thoughts,” while “Swimmer” suggests, among other things, a variation on the sculpture’s cantilevered center of gravity. The collages of the Russian Constructivists, particularly Aleksandr Rodchenko and Liubov Popova, which both link and contrast the curved surfaces and contours of the human machine to the angularity of modern technology, are not-so-distant antecedents of these stirring works.
I left the gallery glad I had discovered this show before it closed, and thinking about how the commanding presence of “We Ride” (which is taller than me, and I’m pretty tall) transforms it into something qualitatively unlike the others. I’m aware of the technical challenges of making large ceramic pieces, but I’m hoping Tacha can find a way to continue her investigations on a bodily scale — at life size. Leveraging the simple device of contrast in multifarious, deeply felt, un-textbook-like ways, Tacha conveys something new and unexpected about the shape-shifting resilience of the human body.
Leah Tacha: Fix Up, Look Sharp continues at 106 Green (104 Green Street, Greenpoint, Brooklyn) through tomorrow.