Looking Glass: Work by Alice Pixley Young

March 18th, 2012  |  Published in *, March 2012

Alice Pixley Young, Tracery (left) and Home Land, 2012, etched glass, 10” x 10” x 3/8”, photo by Tony Walsh, courtesy of the artist.

It took a while to fall under the spell of Alice Pixley Young’s solo exhibition, “Looking Glass,” at PAC Gallery, through April 14.

This was not aided by the persistent and annoying high-pitched sound that emanated from “You are looking for something that no longer exists” tableau. I’m certain it was an attempt to transport you to a different reality, but a deeper, more resonant soundtrack would have been more successful. Say Tuvan throat singers from southern Siberia or monks intoning  Gregorian chants in medieval France or a yogi’s timeless meditative Om.

Young assembles tableaux to explore “duality, mystery, and the possibility of a different experience of reality.” She uses “found and altered objects” to function “as visual talismans and touchstones between a shifting reality of memory and fantasy.”

So let’s start with Coil, made in 2012, as were all the works on view. A “rope” of vintage handkerchiefs tied together – a delicate and ladylike translation of bed sheets tied together to escape a prison — drops Rapunzel-like from the ceiling to the floor to end in a spiral. The knotted handkerchiefs could represent remembrances that link together.

The lovely bits of stuff, some edged with lace, some embroidered, even monogrammed, reminded me of attending church as a child. It was a time when you dressed up in your “Sunday best” – hats and gloves, organdy dresses that scratched at the waist, white anklets and black patent shoes, and a little handbag with an envelope for the collection plate and, of course, a handkerchief.

But before I got close enough to see what Coil was made of, the form and even material evoked Eva Hesse, Jackie Winsor, and Kiki Smith — all feminists, all post-minimalists. (In 1994 when Young took part in the New York Studio Residency Program, which provides workspace in the city, she was Michelle Stuart’s studio assistant and would certainly have known these artists’ work.)

Coil is easy to see as a feminist response to earth artist Robert Smithson’s macho and monumental Spiral Jetty.

In Secret Worlds, long tapes or ribbons with the repeating sentence of “There are secrets in your bones” spill out of a cabinet, “antique” by virtue of being more than 50 years old but undistinguished otherwise. They cascade to the floor in a jumble. It was impossible for me to read the entire sentence without straightening out the tape, perhaps an unintended consequence – or not.

Light is projected through a cast-glass hand mirror placed on the cabinet’s top. Because I saw the exhibition during the day, I couldn’t see this effect, but I like the concept.

Pinned to the wall are crocheted doilies encrusted with salt. Kosher salt? Is this from someone’s bubbie’s —  Yiddish for grandmother — bedroom?

It’s unfortunate that the cabinet is presented on a low plinth. The piece’s studied artiness is emphasized by it. I would have preferred it on the floor, allowing me to imagine it more readily in my grandmother’s bedroom.

Young excels at wistfulness, and nowhere is this more apparent than in “You are looking for something that no longer exists.” A scavenged door, its white paint cracked and grimy, metal knob scraped, and missing its lock, is denied its purpose. Freestanding it’s more barrier than entrance, but it’s easily bypassed by simply walking around it.

A new peephole has been drilled in the door below eye level. (The device, of course, recalls Marcel Duchamp’s Etant donnés.) Through it you see a video of bare branches, shot as if you are standing beneath a tree, looking upwards, and wheeling around. Wait a bit and the branches disappear, replaced with sky and what might be a bird flying past.

You have to spend some time at the door to see both scenes, and there could be more to see if you’re more patient than I was. Standing there, eye to the peephole, the door’s musty smell conjured up a room in a long-abandoned house, for me, my grandparents’ home.

Young loads her tableaux with plenty of meaning, but the most engaging works for me were the two simplest: Tracery and Home Land.

Silhouetted images are etched on 10” squares of 3/8” thick plate glass. Displayed leaning against the wall on a simple metal shelf and lit, they project shadows, which seem as material as the ghostly etching.

Tracery shows the branches of a leafless tree. Home Land has two trees, as alike as identical twins, which are “reflected” and doubled again. They are surrounded by the pattern of a lacey doily, its openwork filled in as if confectioner’s sugar has been sifted through it.

For pieces with so little “content,” as compared to the other works on view with their memory-laden retrieved objects, they may still be the most affecting of the exhibition. They lead you into a world where reality begins with illusion, and you journey on from there.

–Karen S. Chambers

“Looking Glass: Work by Alice Pixley Young,” on view through April 14, 2012, by appointment at PAC Gallery, 2540 Woodburn Ave., Cincinnati, OH 45206, 513-235-4008, www.pacgallery.net.

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