In 2020, as COVID-19 death tolls rose exponentially worldwide, Jon Pylypchuk faced a separate loss, the unexpected death of a close friend, unrelated to COVID. He responded by making ghosts. For several months Pylypchuk fashioned men’s briefs, ski masks, socks, and other clothing and fabric scraps into rudimentary faces (pareidolia, a recurring motif in his work) and cast them in bronze.
These “ghosts” are the subject of What have we missed, his seventh solo show at Friedrich Petzel Gallery. The sculptures inhabit the gallery’s Upper East Side location, mounted on white pedestals and walls. The installation, which allows breathing room between the artworks, and the converted townhouse location, cultivate a somber atmosphere that emphasizes the solitude inherent in mourning, the fact that both individual and collective grief are experienced as solitary.
Fittingly, each ghost is individual. Pylypchuk, whose first foray into bronze was in 2008, used the ghosts to experiment with the medium, resulting in a range of shapes, textures, and patinas, from elongated forms with the glossy finish of liquid mercury to stretched and disfigured undershirts with darkened copper surfaces, to gleaming chainmail or matte green. Over the course of several months he made dozens; in addition to those at Petzel, a handful are in a group show, The New Age of Bronze (June 27–August 21, 2021), at Fredric Snitzer Gallery in Miami, and others remain at his home just outside of Los Angeles.
The press release for What have we missed states, “The sculptures attempt to assure a memory does not fade, to make someone or something exist again in repeated representation.” By Pylypchuk’s own admission, death has pervaded his life; as a child he experienced the deaths of elderly relatives and anxiety about his parents’ mortality. Death has appeared in his art as an adversary, an inevitability, a creeping terror, and a promise. Deterioration is prefigured in the wood, glue, and fabric scraps that comprise much of his artwork.
In this context, the ghosts seem almost inevitable — a chorus of loss that spans a lifetime, and an echo of collective grief. Pylypchuk said by email, “My original thought was they were one individual but I have come to realize it was an individual but also all of us.”
Pylypchuk’s decision to use bronze preceded his friend’s death — early in 2020 he had started a bronze edition and he had been contemplating the possibilities of the medium. The loss invokes its associations with commemoration, yet the ghosts refuse any facade of quietude. The original materials are twisted into expressions of anger, bafflement, supplication, or sorrow, sometimes comically, other times so viscerally that they’re startling.
In one, the contorted form takes on the appearance of a gargoyle with gaping eyeholes, its gnarled arms flailing, two twigs jutting out from its head like horns; green corrosion splotches stain its gray surface. Another resembles the talking trees in The Wizard of Oz, with a long, crooked nose that evokes the Wicked Witch of the West. A particularly plaintive work pairs two ghostly forms, both with a deep charcoal-gray patina, in a pieta (“Untitled (pieta),” 2020).
Pylypchuk’s art has always been deeply engaged with the most painful parts of life, those that human beings tend to push aside or deny in order to get by. Encountering the ghosts in their sometimes funny, sometimes pitiful presence is something like experiencing the comedy of life and tragedy of death all at once. “I feel like the expressions were there,” he explained. “I just squeezed them out. The way the things were knit I think directed the ability to make the expressions without tearing or cutting. In some cases I did tear or cut them.” It was “hard for me to not emerge with my heart on my sleeve,” he added.
The ghosts’ vivid emotions are both a reflection of the anguish of loss and an assertion of their difference from us. This gap between identification and alienation parallels the sense of being simultaneously within and outside of oneself that can accompany the grieving process. Pylypchuk does little to anthropomorphize the ghosts. He lets viewers see themselves or loved ones in things that are often still recognizable; the most uncanny effect of the work may be identifying with a face and then seeing an empty ski mask or the frayed edges of a terrycloth towel.
Over the years, his ragtag animal and humanoid parade has reenacted all manner of human drama. Paradoxically, the nonhuman appearances that separate them from us also mirror our illusions and delusions about ourselves. For I Know I’ll Never Love This Way Again at Nino Mier Gallery in Los Angeles (May 15–June 19, 2021), another solo show of bronze sculptures this year, Pylypchuk used the medium to comment on mortality and the body’s degeneration through age and bad habits. The exhibition featured bronze versions of his humanoid cigarettes, originally made of found materials and poured concrete, some with light bulbs for eyes.
In 2021, the cigarettes were drinking and smoking, and wallowing in an emotional morass or making futile attempts at self-improvement — all against the backdrop of the year’s sociopolitical and health crises. In this case, the grandeur of bronze chafed against their rusted exteriors and the weight of rumpled bodies on stick legs — the weight of their mortality.
In some ways, the ghosts share more with Pylypchuk’s 2008 bronze sculptures, in particular the epic, life-sized “Untitled (Bronze Elephants),” which I described at the time as “bear[ing] the crushing weight of immortality.” The artist stated, “Permanence was totally in my head — making my impermanent friend permanent. Or at least trying to.”
Before the exhibition Pylypchuk traveled to the Southern California desert with the ghosts, where photographer Joshua White documented them amid the indigenous flora and nestled in ramshackle structures and abandoned vans. The discrepancy between the illusion of life and the reality of the object that the gallery context underscores is diminished in the desert, where the ghosts converge with the natural world, their creatural character animated by the alien landscape. In nature, as in White’s photographs or even in Pylypchuk’s verdant backyard (where I saw them), what’s most evident is their strange and irreplaceable singularity.
In The Gift of Death (1992), Jacques Derrida, analyzing the work of other philosophers, writes: “Death is very much that which nobody else can undergo or confront in my place. My irreplaceability is therefore conferred, delivered, ‘given,’ one can say, by death.”
Jon Pylypchuk: What have we missed continues at Friedrich Petzel Gallery (35 East 67th Street, Manhattan) through August 6.