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Sometimes an exhibition comes along in which the work of two or three artists unexpectedly fuses into a construct of uncanny, unitary perfection; where the forms, colors, space, placement, and light interact with a transcendence that turns the installation into its own immersive entity.
This doesn’t happen very often. The only instance from my own experience that springs readily to mind is a 2014 exhibition at Valentine, the sorely missed artist-run space in Ridgewood, Queens, which featured the paintings of Patricia Satterlee and the sculptures of David Henderson and Jude Tallichet.
But as I walked into Excavations & Certainties at John Molloy Gallery on the Upper East Side, a two-artist exhibition pairing Theresa Hackett’s paintings with Shari Mendelson’s sculptures, a similar sense of perfection imperceptibly set in, a seed of tranquility growing into an enveloping presence.
Several factors contributed to this sensation, but the overriding one was light. The gallery, which is a single, snug room with a foyer on one side and an office on the other, is graced with a corner casement window, through which an abundance of daylight softly bathes the space. The artworks by turns reflect and absorb it; Hackett makes materials-based paintings in which thickly worked surfaces blossom into three-dimensional disks and lozenges, while Mendelson makes vessels out of recycled plastic that hover between the primeval and the surreal.
The first thing to grab your attention is the window, where two Mendelson sculptures are perched on pedestals (“Blue Hippo 1,” 2012, and “Animal with Vessel in Net,” 2017); the next thing you notice is the adjacent white mantelpiece, over which Hackett’s painting “Before the Rain” (2017) hangs off center. Beneath it sit five more sculptures, the self-descriptive “Blue Vessel with Long Neck” (2017), “Brown Animal” (2011), “Winged Animal with Vessels” (2015), “Three Vessels with Exoskeleton (Ochre)” (2017), and “Round Gold Vessel with Decorative Long Neck” (2016).
Hackett’s “Before the Rain” is executed, like virtually all the other works of hers on display, in acrylic, gesso, Flashe, marker, clay, and diatomaceous earth on a wood panel. A symmetrically composed, funkily rendered abstract landscape, the composition is bisected by a striped path or stairway, which is flanked on either side by looping lines that appear to be vestigial tracings of a scrubbed-off image, the contours of an absence.
A flat, misshapen clay lozenge, covered in abraded red pigment, is affixed to the left of the stairway/path’s base, while three drops of white paint in the middle of the lower right quadrant balance out the clay object’s weight. Above the horizon line, Hackett has laid down a cloud of thick gesso, its glistening white surface overlaid with a wireframe enclosure, loosely outlined in pink brushstrokes.
The exposure of the gesso on the panel’s surface turns conventional painting technique on its head, pulling the cellar floor to the roof, so to speak, while the seemingly deliberate refusal to distinguish between painting and drawing in the rendering of the shapes, coupled with the clay lozenge’s insertion into the two-dimensional imagery, kick the piece further into its own speculative realm.
Each of Hackett’s panels play with their components of paint, gesso, marker, and clay in decidedly different ways, some taking on the appearance of straight abstract painting while others veer off into a rackety, outsider-ish groove. The gesso, which is clearly used in a way it wasn’t intended, blisters and cracks in places, but that only serves to further assert a surface whose hard reflectiveness is the perfect foil for the translucent plastic sculptures, bouncing the window’s velvety daylight around the room, where Mendelson’s objects capture and contain it.
There is a visceral element to Hackett’s use of red, which sits uneasily on the spectrum between violet and pink, hinting at the color of flayed muscle — not to the point of grisliness, but toward a feeling that her otherwise whimsical shapes are linked to living reality.
Internal crosscurrents also enliven Mendelson’s sculptures, which are combinations of linear classicism, absurd over-decoration, and the aesthetics of the landfill. Her medium is the environmental scourge of plastic bottles, which she cuts, melts, and glues together, enhancing their surfaces with mica and paint.
This makes for the kind of awkward fluidity found in a Sumerian jug or an Egyptian amulet. But these vessels, as the artist frequently titles them, are often so elaborately ornamented with riffs off their original models that they seem to be sitting on the opposite end of the Platonic ideal — transformed into art by the sheer inutility of their forms.
Embedded within their layered surfaces, which are far more lustrous and sensual than plastic has any right to be, you sometimes find identifying signs of the bottle that went into the making of the piece, such as the brand name Pom that pops off the side of “Animal with Vessel in Net.” While similar manifestations of consumerism are more subtle elsewhere, its patent display here — an amphora footed by an unnamable beast that could be a cat or a bull — isn’t as jarring as might be expected: the sculpture is less a replica of an ancient form than a knowing ghost of it, so that the appearance of the brand has the feeling of a sports car parked beside the base of a partially excavated column in Rome. The vessel’s unsettled surface speaks not of historicism but historical simultaneity.
If they are not on the mantelpiece or in front of the casement window, Mendelson’s sculptures are mounted on white pedestals at precisely spaced intervals around the room: on either side of the entrance leading to the foyer, or flanking Hackett’s largest painting, “Folding In” (2017), which features a central kite-like shape in red, gray, and taupe surrounded by gleaming swells of gesso.
These three artworks, with their balance of improvisation and paradigmatic structure, combine to create an iconic, modernist/classicist ensemble, a meshing of unlikely objects emblematic of the interplay between painting and sculpture throughout the room. The individuality of each body of work is energized by the other; the knobs, loops, and lattices of Mendelson’s objects underscore the sculptural presence of Hackett’s clay protrusions, while the tortoise-shell solidity of Hackett’s surfaces seem to turn Mendelson’s plastic animals and non-functioning vessels into clouds and columns of smoke.
The harmony between the art and its surroundings is a source of elation and melancholy; the beauty of the installation, unlike that of the individual pieces, can never be revisited. That the gallery happens to be in a space that was once a private home (and can easily be converted back into one) holds a special poignancy; there is a sense of the serenity that comes from living with art, which is absent from larger, more intentional and streamlined venues. And within that serenity there’s a glimpse of an art world that is less frenetic, less star-struck, less bombastic and money-driven. It’s a nice place to linger.
Excavations & Certainties continues at John Molloy Gallery (49 East 78th Street, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through October 28.