An artist’s artist, Petah Coyne has gone in and out of the public eye, though critical acclaim has rarely wavered. A survey of nearly 20 years of sculptural work, this museum-quality show takes place in two spaces, and is nothing short of impressive.
Feathers, lace, candles, ribbon, animal hair, plastic beads and flowers—these are some of the materials Coyne has used over the years to create her distinctive organic abstractions, covering their feminine, sometimes kitschy forms with skins of clotted white and black wax, woven horsehair, and metal car shavings turned to sand. With only hints of color—yellow, pink, peach, red, and green—peeking through, the work’s starkness recalls the sculpture of Louise Nevelson, who similarly transformed found objects into poetic abstractions, exploiting the metaphoric power of black and white to evoke polarities of life and death, purity and sin, beauty and ugliness. Other women artists, like Eva Hesse, Lee Bontecou, and Louise Bourgeois, also come to mind.
The effects of Coyne’s palette are striking. Compare two untitled works that feature white plaster Madonnas about three feet high, both in the same room at the SculptureCenter: One is a radiant vision in white, the other is somber and black. Nearly everything is identical: Both face away from the viewer toward corners, enveloped by elaborate cloaks of wax-drenched flowers that trail behind them on the floor. Various flowers and ribbon clusters dot the perimeter of these skirts, and extinguished candles are everywhere. The first, though, has the aura of a young girl making her first Communion. A lace collar and bright pearls add to this effect, but it’s the brightness of the white wax that imbues the white Madonna with hope and innocence. The black version, by contrast, evokes decay and suffering.
Coyne’s impulse to preserve, recycle, and alchemize what our culture typically devalues or throws away is consistently conveyed in her baroque transformations of the insignificant and ugly. Reminiscent of Gothic candelabra, several mammoth works suspended from the ceiling are shaped in tiers and ringed in candles. Plastic doves with peacock feathers adorn these forms, as do other birds, some hidden under the canopies. One wall piece, made of braided and knotted hair, feathers out in a wing-like pattern, its laborious and delicate form recalling Victorian memorial jewelry made from the hair of deceased loved ones. Taxidermied fowl lie within its densely webbed areas, but like similar birds in other works, are barely visible. Nesting or imprisoned, they suggest transitory states of death and renewal, and are acts of magic.
Indeed, as intensely sensual and material as they are, Coyne’s works force us to contemplate the possibilities of our own metamorphosis, spiritual or otherwise. More than anything else, it is this intimate regard for the transformative power of ritual that distinguishes her work.