Give Orly Genger Enough Rope!
Give Orly Genger Enough Rope!
A sprawling mass of white-painted rope appeared to have crash-landed on the floor of Victoria Bartlett's VPL storefront in Soho on Monday night. Laying beneath it — or really woven into it — were two near-nude models, prone and relatively inert. This theatrical, one-night-only performance/installation was the brainchild of artist Orly Genger, known for large-scale sculptures using colorful masses of woven rope. It had a stunt-like character — it was a PR promo for a boutique, after all — but thinking it over, it occurred to me that what appeared as a one-off was really sort of a synthesis of themes for this artist, and that "Squat," as the project was called, might even suggest a more complicated way to think about what she does, at least more complicated than the way I had been thinking about it before.
The works that Genger has become known for — "Mr Softy" at the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum or the vast "Big Boss" at MASS MoCA — are distinguished by sheer ambition and volume, incorporating sometimes miles of hand-crocheted rope into space-filling cumulus clouds, mudslides, and stacks. They are labor-intensive (and showy about it), but also meant to be seen as high-impact wholes, soft-sculptural fireworks of colorful material. In their "obsessive piles of stuff" aesthetic, they suggest kinship with the aggregation art of Tara Donovan — one of the more successful contemporary-art tactics — though Genger's works are less architectonic and display a more monomaniacal temperament in their insistence on a signature material. They are, finally, eminently accessible, ruthlessly formal sculptures whose main content would seem to be the demand to seize your attention.
However, there is more, if you dig in only a little, because the sculptures are also distinctly, if coyly, bodily and organic, suggesting pulsing organs. This latent reference point is hinted at by the artist's current show of drawings at Larissa Goldston Gallery in Chelsea. These large works-on-paper present the outlines of various masses and webs of lines, echoing the forms and textures of the more well-known sculptures. However, these are composed, eccentrically, of networks of cartoon images of the brawny flexed forearms of superheroes. It's a funny device, alluding to the oft-remarked-on muscularity of Genger's sculptures, suggesting the body as an underlying theme, but then internally distancing itself from this theme via the use of fragmentary cartoon imagery. The vibe is similar to that of Sue Williams's weird and wild paintings, minus Williams's paranoia and feminist sensibility.
This is not entirely fair, though. In a 2004 interview with Artnet, Genger spoke about the feminist sensibility she does admire, which she describes as "neither aggressive nor pitying." And she relates this sensibility to her sculpture, in a passage that deserves to be quoted in full: "Women are constantly trying to define the body because they often find themselves being defined by it. Yet at the same time there is a feeling of being divorced from the body, as if physical identity belongs to the world as much as to oneself. So, female artists are often trying to deal with this 'thing' that seems to define us in some way and separate us. And this 'thing' really starts to become an object that we can hold up to the light and inspect from all angles, like sculpture."
Which brings me to the other Genger sideline that might be the key to her sculptural work, which is her jewelry, tough but sensuous collars, necklaces, and bracelets made from her characteristic knotted rope. Because what Genger seems to be describing in the above passage is the sense of the body as accessory, integral to one's image of oneself but also somehow a mutable prop — and the VPL "Squat" performance might be described as an elaborate artistic extrapolation of her jewelry work, with the models "wearing" the sculpture, or being worn by it as a tumescent accessory, thereby expressing the sense of the interpenetration of sculpture and self — the intimate existential referent in play beneath the surface of her sculptures, with their outgoing mess of flashy formal pyrotechnics.