Someone once told me that the mark of a good poem is telling the secret and keeping it at the same time. Composed of 17 works (incidentally, the number of syllables in a haiku), Siobhan Liddell: Mist and Nuts at Gordon Robichaux is a powerful little poem of a show: spare, strange, quiet, intentional in its moves, economical in its means. Oblique, the work serves meaning sideways — not to be onerous or sententious, but because that is how meaning often comes to us.
Who is the poet behind the painted assemblages at hand? British-born artist Siobhan Liddell grew up helping her father, a lightweight structural engineer, construct architectural models out of toothpicks and pantyhose. After moving to New York City, she became Robert Gober’s studio assistant — one can detect a sliver of Goberesque deadpan in her work — and she contributed a small painting to the 1989 Artists Space exhibition Witnesses: Against Our Vanishing, an important group show addressing the AIDS crisis, curated by Nan Goldin. In the 1990s, Liddell garnered recognition for sculptures incorporating modest Arte Povera-style materials such as cardboard or wire; in one exhibition at the lesbian art space Trial Balloon, she hung a thread from the ceiling and priced it at 10 cents. In the ensuing decades, she has produced works as diverse as slender rods of colored glass, intimate bronze casts of the spaces between bodies, photos with oculi cut into them, and shards of paper arranged into swirling textural collages.
Made in 2021 and 2022, the figurative oil paintings on view in Mist and Nuts feature three-dimensional addenda — including a set of ceramic hands grasping the frame’s edges, a layer of gauzy bookbinders’ linen, and a playfully dangling wire hoop — that complicate and enchant the paintings’ content (a surreal nighttime landscape, a depiction of Stonehenge, and a council flat once inhabited by the artist, respectively). In the first piece that I encountered upon entering the gallery, “Luminous Splendor” (2021), a spindly snowflake composed of aluminum foil hangs in front of a softly scumbled painting of a gray brick wall. The work telegraphs the state of mind elicited by heavy snow, the way that the blanket of silence that accompanies snowfall can taper our visual acuity to a point. This tuning fork of a painting prompts meditation on the simple power of paying attention, of finding quiet. A related invitation or directive, “Listen In” (2021), is a trompe l’oeil depiction of an open corrugated cardboard box; in front of the painted box are two paper straws suspended on wires. Seen head-on, the straws form flat white vertical lines that cut through the picture plane, pithily adding another facet to the optical illusion, or the work’s slipperiness. When moved by a breeze from a nearby window, the lines spring to life with a delicate tremble, rendering the painting kinetic.
Delightfully, the poetry of Liddell’s work is sufficiently capacious to accommodate humor and play. In the wryly conceptual “Void, Hammer” (2021), a ceramic hammer — an absurd tool that would surely shatter with a whack — rests upon the top edge of a painting of a diamond-shaped vacuum in which there is patently nothing to hammer. Another painting and ceramic assemblage, “Endless Eternal” (2021), features a glazed black cat figurine reclining atop a painted portrayal of a dark tunnel recessed into a hazy, patched terrain of gray, brown, and chartreuse. In the unexpected interplay of feline tchotchke and otherworldly enigma lies this painting’s off-kilter allure, its endlessness, its poem.
Siobhan Liddell: Mist and Nuts continues at Gordon Robichaux (22 East 17th Street, Union Square, Manhattan) through June 12. The exhibition was organized by the gallery.