Anal-Retentive Warrior Princess

Proportioned to the Groove (detail)
photo: Robin Holland

Sarah Sze is a creator and destroyer of worlds, an explorer of fantastical hyper-space, a mapper of interstices, a maker of mutating topographies, and a supreme anal-retentive warrior princess of multiplicity.

Even though she sometimes seems to be just an arranger of stuff, and her art is often hermetic to the point of standoffishness, I've been an on-and-off fan since she emerged in 1996.

This is her first New York gallery outing since her ambitious but flawed 2000 solo debut, in which she created a kind of exploding house-descending-the-walls. That exhibition, although perhaps more autobiographical than one suspected, given the enticing clues deployed here, was a rare stumble. Sze was in transition. Now this 36-year-old, who has had a half-dozen museum exhibitions and is a recipient of a MacArthur grant, is consolidating her strengths and spreading her wings.

Using her familiar array of materials—sticks, stones, thread, pushpins, doll-rods, extension cords, paper plates, and a thousand other things—Sze offsets her formalistic fussiness by investigating structure and space in noticeably imaginative, magical, and maniacal ways. Her processes continue to be little, littler, and littlest, as well as weird, weirder, and weirdest. This time, instead of the scattered or dense deployments that she favored in the past or the elongated sculptures of her debut, Sze lays out a slanting, asymmetrical parallelogram of multicolored cables that bisects and unifies the gallery.

Beneath this tilting network is a hallucination of lilliputian proportions. Arcing webs of roots or fistulas branch out of this grid like an interweaving fungus of threads. The floor is lush with stuff. Microcosm and macrocosm flip-flop, proliferation and segmentation shatter any linear sense of the world, and the installation turns into a civilization. There are no people but cities, forests, and deserts materialize, as do factories, highways, and bridges. Stacked jewelry boxes turn into skyscrapers, areas of blue paint become rivers and seas. Gradually, this sculpture-as-planet morphs into a giant biomechanical organism—a machine that manufactures other machines that make more machines, and everything turns infernal. Then the room changes into a skeletal cyborg, at the center of which is a geometric android vagina.

The only lights are small lamps. Fans whir and objects vibrate. This gives the installation an eerie sense of being alive, like it's some kind of extraterrestrial intrauterine nursery or otherworldly origami-ikebana garden. Proportioned to the Groove, as the large installation is called, and the denser Still Life With Fish—clustered in a nearby cutaway closet—are astoundingly organized. Some will say excessively so, that Sze is too finicky and controlling, and that too much of the gallery is inert. There's some truth to these criticisms. But Sze's finickiness has gone from formulaic to transcendental, and although she's occupied with qualities like light and air, this show feels deeper than usual. And more personal.

Sze has said that "narrative" is a way to read her work. I've always thought that one of these narratives was autobiographical, but that Sze was overly cagey about what she revealed. This has caused her work to come off as more detached, unfeeling, or anonymous than it was. These propensities may have allowed her wilder side a clandestine voice, but her humanity was obscured in the process. This installation tells a lot. I don't know Sze well, but I know she joined this gallery in the late 1990s, that she is part Chinese, and that her father is an architect. She's also visibly pregnant. I'm probably wrong and essentializing in terrible ways, but I think this installation might be a kind of nativity talisman and that it speaks in a sort of sculptural tongue.

I have no idea when Sze's baby is due. However, the whole room seems to be spelling out the date August 22, 2005. Black stones hang from the grid and rest atop nine taped-out rectangles—one for each month of a normal pregnancy. A single stone rests on a calendar page atop the week of August 14, 2005. A white flower petal has been placed on August 22, 2005. This date is also written out on the side of a white box in the closet. A nearby box has "11/14/04" written on it. The period between the two dates is 280 days, or the exact number of days of a full-term pregnancy. Remarkably, a tape measure from the center of the installation is extended to 280. In the far corner, where all the lines and objects converge—no one can enter because the grid acts as a barrier (Sze's private side again)—is a birth canal configuration with an exotic flower at its center.

Adding to the autobiographical intrigue are lamps that say, "Made in China," architectural models, and pill containers sporting her parents' names. The art career is represented by one stone atop a pile of Sze's exhibition catalogs. The bottom catalog is Lisa Yuskavage's, her gallerymate and someone who allegedly helped get her into Boesky. I'd mention the his-and-hers shoes, the trousers, water bags, and various drugs, but it would make my code buster approach seem even sillier. It would also detract from this abstract tour de force by a gifted artist.

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