Mary Lum’s paintings on paper are based on collages, which are made from things she uses or encounters in her everyday life as well as photographs she takes of the places she visits. Looking at her works in the exhibition Mary Lum: When the Sky Is a Shape at Yancey Richardson (January 8–February 26, 2022), the writings of Michel de Certeau, particularly the essay “Walking in the City,” came to mind. In that essay (included in his 1984 book The Practice of Everyday Life), de Certeau makes the following comparison:
The act of walking is to the urban system what the speech act is to language or to the statements uttered. At the most elementary level, it has a triple “enunciative” function: it is a process of appropriation of the topographical system on the part of the pedestrian (just as the speaker appropriates and takes on the language); it is a spatial acting-out of the place (just as the speech act is an acoustic acting out of language); and it implies relations among the differentiated positions, that is, among pragmatic “contracts” in the form of movements […]. It thus seems possible to give a preliminary definition of walking as a space of enunciation.
Using de Certeau’s comparison as a guide, I think a lot may be gained by considering Lum’s works as visual enunciations based on walks she has taken, and the multiple associations each daily adventure can stir up.
In an email that I received from Lum, I learned that for the 20 years before the pandemic, she spent every January and part of February in Paris. One of her practices was to buy a sketchbook and begin to make a couple of collages a day from the stuff she gathered, such as the printed paper wrapper that her cheese came in or pages from a magazine she bought. She also took many photographs, which she printed when she returned home, and incorporated into larger works. This email exchange helped explain the scale shifts in Lum’s current exhibition, starting with works that measure around 14 by 11 inches and may eventually be used to make a painting.
The next body of work in the exhibition consists of pieces measuring around 30 by 22 inches, and — like what I call the sketchbook works — often utilizing photo-collage. However, the largest works, measuring between 67 3/4 by 44 3/4 inches and 83 by 55 inches, are done entirely in acrylic.
Taking de Certeau’s terms, Lum’s walks become “a space of enunciation” in which she has gathered (or appropriated) a wide range of things that she cuts and arranges. The sharply angled arrangements convey both the vertigo that walking around a city can induce in individuals who are open to what they see, and the memories this might spark. Her paintings and collage are architectonic, with planes abutting alongside open, layered forms, evoking shop windows and walls, reflections and glimpses. Lum also incorporates phrases and words, which she cuts horizontally, shifting the lower and upper parts. Or she presents the words upside down, repeatedly, like a visual stutter, seen partially so they are unreadable. This asemic impulse allows a mental space to open up in the viewer, while the visual stutter invites us to enunciate the staccato repetitions of sounds we hear and see when we walk through the city.
What struck me about Lum’s work is how she transforms both the things she has gathered and her broad and deep know of art history, from Dada, Orphism, and Cubism to Lettrism and décollages, into something all her own, which means she has achieved the autonomy that she is seeking. That is the welcome surprise that awaits anyone who visits this exhibition and looks long enough to see that all the similarities to her precedents fall away, and what emerges is something fresh and engaging.
In “Poster” (2021, acrylic, found paper, and photo collage on paper, 30 by 22 inches), the clusters of asemic letters are on the cusp of legibility, and a spatial cul-de-sac is visible on the right. I am reminded of that moment in a foreign city when you realize the signs are beyond your comprehension, and yet that is not really what is going on in this work. If all art aspires to the condition of music (which is a state of abstraction), as Walter Pater said, “Poster” achieves that state while having one foot in the referential world.
In “Rue Charlot” (2021, acrylic, found paper, and photo collage on paper, 30 by 22 inches), which refers to a trendy, upscale street in the Marais district of Paris, Lum brings together printed and solidly colored pieces of paper with a photo collage. In the photo collage, which is in the upper right-hand corner, we can read the words “port” (twice) and “cant,” along with the peeling letters “DIA,” all of which we are invited to interpret. The photo collage is overlaid what could be the letter F (which we see elsewhere in the collage) or an architectural element. It is that shifting and visual rhyme that holds the viewer’s attention, as well as invites further scrutiny. Meanwhile, the red and white printed pattern brings to mind a basket, suggesting it may be meant to recall a time when people commonly used baskets to carry things and nice printed wrapping paper had not yet been invented.
Another thing that struck me about the works in this exhibition was how different they were from each other, even as Lum used some of the same materials. The painting on paper “Endless Fall 3” (2021, acrylic on paper, 30 by 22 inches) depicts what could be a table with a large, planar, abstract object on it, or a geometric sculpture with six legs, and shares something with the work of Thomas Scheibitz, whose lexicon also nimbly dances between two- and three-dimensionality.
One can sense Lum’s joy at alluding to art movements and artists, such as Robert Delaunay and Mimmo Rotella, as well as reminding us that the gap between art and life, at least as Robert Rauschenberg defined it, can be dissolved by a daily practice that uses what is found in the course of a day. The care that Lum puts into the compositions, in tandem with her refusal to settle into a mode of production, is refreshing at a time when branding is held in high esteem.
Mary Lum: When the Sky Is a Shape continues at Yancey Richardson (525 West 22nd Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through February 26.