Lisa Sigal, “Mat (Utopia Free)” (2016), cast cardboard pulp with collage, 32 by 22 inches (all images courtesy of the artist and MILLER)

In contemporary abstract painting, references to architecture are commonplace — but to housing, not so much. For many years, Lisa Sigal’s paintings have ruminated on buildings and their discontents: the dodgy promise of stability, the tradeoff between security and confinement. With her current show, Utopia Free, she pushes beyond the speculative investigation of the previously unseen — the premise of much abstraction — into the realm of advocacy.

In a beautiful artist’s statement written years ago, Sigal asks of her own installation work, “where was the line between illusion and material?” In her outlook, seemingly solid things fall apart, dissolve or otherwise evanesce, and fugitive forms gain substance. Her ongoing series of “Hinged Paintings” could also be shelters.

“Lisa Sigal: Utopia Free,” Miller Contemporary, exterior view

Thirteen years ago, for Open House: Working in Brooklyn at the Brooklyn Museum of Art (as it was then called), Sigal produced “On the Rooftop,” a 12-by-13-foot, site-specific, wall-based installation consisting of shards and chunks of raw and painted plywood, drywall and other building materials with, here and there, snippets of silhouetted city skylines. I’m not sure how I read the piece at the time, but I remember it now as an ode to that liminal upper perimeter of the architectural envelope where the structure below our feet meets the void above our heads.

A sequence of images on the Miller Contemporary website documenting Utopia Free pointedly begins with establishing shots of the gallery’s storefront space — two from street level, and one from the top of the utilitarian, steel-and-iron front steps, just outside the door. All three photos feature the gallery’s prominent display window amid the dense fabric of lower Essex Street frontages. As an adjunct (or, for some viewers, a prelude) to the exhibition, these images direct attention to its physical context: a historically residential and commercial mixed-use area

Lisa Sigal, “Curbside (orange salvage)” (2016), laminated painted cardboard, handmade cardboard paper, 60 by 40 inches

The first works the visitor sees upon entering the gallery are three from Sigal’s “Curbside” series (all laminated painted cardboard, handmade cardboard paper, 60 by 40 inches, 2016). Like tinted fog, a drifting field of moderately saturated vermilion all but fills “Curbside (orange salvage);” just a few oddly shaped bits at the edges of the sheet impinge on this weird expanse, which is fenced off behind a spray-painted stencil of chain link that looks nearly photographic.

But in a classic flip-flop of figure and ground, that orange, as you look at it, becomes a beautiful, asymmetrically notched shape, and what you thought was negative space snaps forward to the surface and becomes a presence — a deconstructed cardboard carton, split open at the glued seam. The interweaving of form and void that was described, or maybe illustrated, in “On the Rooftop” is experienced in “Curbside (orange salvage).”

Lisa Sigal, “Curbside (corrugated rug)” (2016), laminated painted cardboard, handmade cardboard paper, 60 by 40 inches

Presumably, the cardboard elements in the series are found objects. The title of “Curbside (corrugated rug)” connotes the last-ditch furnishings of homeless urban nomads, and in fact the carton used in this work is in pieces, worn and frayed as if from habitual use as a carpet. Placed against a chromatically neutral gray ground, it recalls the scattered chunks of imagery and construction debris of “On the Rooftop,” except that, rather than compositional improvisation, you sense a documentary impulse at work to preserve the artifact more or less as the artist came upon it.

“Mat (Utopia Free)” (cast cardboard pulp with collage, 32 by 22 inches, 2016) is the likeness of a small, flattened carton produced by a certain “UTOPIA” packaging manufacturer, with a hand-lettered “FREE” taped on. It’s modeled after (and/or partly salvaged from) an actual box that had been repurposed for front-stoop giveaways, but it’s unclear just how much of the piece is taken directly from that original object, how much is reconstituted from pulping it, and how much is altogether new.

“Lisa Sigal: Utopia Free,” Miller Contemporary, interior view

In any case, this two-word manifesto suggests that in an ideal world, there would be no need for currency — goods would be distributed according to need, want, or whim, free of transactional constraints such as payment. Nice idea. “Mat (sliver)” (cast cardboard pulp, 12 by 12 inches, 2016) is the smallest and simplest work in the show, and closely resembles an unadorned scrap of the corrugated stuff. In the context of “Utopia Free,” however, it takes on an ironic, self-reflective critique of Sigal’s own means of support, the absurd economy of a distribution system that assigns exchange value to a worthless few ounces of cardboard that’s been pulped and reformed to resemble itself.

The “Mat” series may bring to mind Robert Rauschenberg’s early-1970s “Cardboards,” those wall-based works comprising busted-up cardboard boxes and a whole lot of moxie. A study in the sculptural potential of a single banal material, the series also pushed the envelope of extreme frugality — they are literally trash, only slightly modified — and the “value added” by their gallery context rivals that of Duchamp’s “readymades.”

Sigal’s mode is essentially pictorial, and her register more visually restrained (albeit materially more elaborate), but her “Mats” and Rauschenberg’s “Cardboards” are curiously linked by coastal geography. Rauschenberg executed the “Cardboards” after moving to Captiva Island, off the Gulf Coast of Florida; he covered a few of them with glue and a dusting of the manicured island’s fine white sand. At the other end of the glamor spectrum is Shooters Island, located off Staten Island near the Bayonne Bridge. (The New York/New Jersey state line cuts through this speck on the map; New York City runs a bird sanctuary there.) A hundred years ago it was home to a bustling shipyard, but that’s now in waterlogged ruins.

Lisa Sigal, “Curbside (Black Sky)” (2017), painted cardboard, glass bottles, 32 by 47 inches

Salvaged from the island, two thick, fogged-looking glass bottles — apparently decades old, maybe the remnants of a dockside lunch break back in the day — are recycled for “Curbside (Black Sky)” (painted cardboard, glass, 32 by 47 inches, 2017), where they are positioned on a sheet of cardboard laid out in the middle of the gallery’s floor. Stenciled on the cardboard in sooty spray paint is the long, narrow grid of a cheap twin-bed mattress spring. You could get knots in your back just by looking at it. “Curbside (corrugated rug)” starts to look comfortable in comparison.

For her “Break It Down” series, Sigal uses an image derived from a photograph of a building under construction. The perspective in this oblique view emphasizes the rebar protruding upward from a cast concrete floor slab, looking something like the iron bars of a prison cell.

Lisa Sigal, “Break It Down (fault lines)” (2016), archival paper, silkscreen and plaster, 26 x 40 inches

The screenprinted image is nearly illegible in “Break It Down (fault lines)” (paper, silkscreen and plaster, 40 by 26 inches, 2016); not only is it extremely faint, but the slab of plaster it’s printed on is riddled with long, finger-thick grooves from some anomaly of the casting process. I’m making it sound like a mess, but it’s the strongest piece in this very strong show, because the visuality of its abstruseness grabs you and holds you. Unlike some other conceptually oriented work, it doesn’t resist being deciphered, doesn’t whisper, “just you try to figure me out.” It’s so materially strange — equally sumptuous and naked, somehow — that it draws you in and goes to work on you.

Lisa Sigal, “Materials Never Leave This World” (2017), cast paper and plaster, 26 by 30 inches

Devoid of imagery and pictorial space, the various tonalities of white in “Materials Never Leave This World” (cast paper and plaster, 26 by 30 inches, 2017) resolve into a low relief of flaps, seams, and wrinkles that mostly align with the outside edges. The title just might be a quote from The Argonauts (2015), the celebrated hybrid of autobiography and theory written by Maggie Nelson, which includes the lines: “Materials never leave this world. They just keep recycling, recombining […] in a real, material sense, what is made from where.” The narrator (perhaps unwittingly) cites the law of conservation of matter, according to which a closed system’s total mass cannot change in quantity, only in form. (“Empirically speaking,” Nelson writes, “we are made of star stuff.”)

How far is Sigal going with this zero-sum idea? Does the analogy apply to the redistribution of wealth, or only of material goods? To trickle-down economists, more high-end refrigerators shipped means there are more nice, roomy cardboard boxes for street people to sleep in. By exchanging the abstract for the concrete, Utopia Free addresses the matter of survival in the rickety edifice of late capitalism.

Lisa Sigal: Utopia Free continues at Miller Contemporary (17 Essex Street, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through December 22.

Stephen Maine is a painter who lives and works in West Cornwall, Connecticut, and Brooklyn, New York. His writing has appeared regularly in Art in America, ARTnews, Art on Paper, The...