Edward Mayer: The Idea of Impermanence

Linear Accelerator, 1994. Wood, hardware, and mixed media, 13 x 20 x 35 ft.

Home is the point of departure for Edward Mayer. With one foot both in and out the door, each step around a Mayer installation site takes you miles from its start. Yet the formalist can find familiar ground in Mayer’s simple geometries and structural definition of space; so can the architect. In his more recent work, the naturalist will respond to the organic rhythms of twisting vines and tree branches; the collector can delight in the associative power of newly discovered found objects; the do-it-yourself builder will relate to Mayer’s favored materials, common wood lath, fencing cylinders, generic wire shelving. The historian, the stargazer, and the urban archaeologist will all find something that hits home in Mayer’s installations too-at least temporarily.

Boat/House, House/Boat, 1989. Redwood, 12 x 32 x 10 ft.

“Boat/House, House/Boat” (1989), built in Marin County, California, is an impermanent structure that bears the paradoxical hallmarks of Mayer’s 25-year career as an installation artist. Constructed out of stacked redwood lath, the piece is a direct response to the region’s available materials and to the exhibit site. His installation process allows for traveling light: he pre-orders his materials, arrives on-site to build the piece and when it’s done, he leaves. The life of the piece parallels the run of the exhibit; when the latter ends, the former comes down, the site returns to its original condition, and the materials are sold, returned, or warehoused for reuse at a future site. “Boat/House, House/Boat”, like other Mayer installations, renders an initially colonizing act so vulnerable that at any moment it might collapse. When he begins an installation, his material and process are used to map out the boundaries of what will occur in the site. By the time the piece reaches eye level, unanticipated possibilities present themselves. He keeps going with the aid of a ladder until he reaches a series of conclusions that may differ from his earlier intentions. At this point, he knows that, at least for the moment, his efforts are complete. Mayer is a restless formalist; he is unwilling to give up its rigors and unable to accept its orthodoxies. Ultimately the temporal nature of his endeavors, matched by his tenacity in subverting our expectations, continue to push him further away from these formalist roots into less-charted realms.

Enfilade, 1998. Welded steel fencing and cable ties, dimensions variable.

After returning from a year in Italy in 1973, Mayer began to question the concepts of permanence and longevity. In Italy, continuous exposure to centuries of cultural artifacts and the realization that this legacy rested in the hands of others reduced his already waning interest in making discrete objects. Early experiments in movable steel forms and hinged Formica cubes provided certain reference points for later work (using pieces with multiple options that adjust easily to a given site, for instance), but Mayer found these efforts self-limiting. He needed an expanded vocabulary, one that de-emphasized reliance on skill and craftsmanship and allowed for an increased awareness of the cultural and historical layers inherent in a given space-quests paralleled by many of his contemporaries including Donald Judd, Robert Morris, Alice Aycock, Mary Miss, and Sol LeWitt.

Synedoche, 1990. Wood and hardware, 14 x 25 x 80 ft.

For an artist with little interest in producing easily marketable commodities, teaching provided the ideal balance of financial security, relevant dialogue, and the time necessary for meaningful evolution to occur. Mayer began teaching sculpture in 1970 at Ohio University in Athens, and has continued to teach (since 1983) at the State University of New York, Albany, where he heads the Sculpture Department. While in Ohio, Mayer discovered the modular and mathematical possibilities of standard four-foot wood lath at a local lumberyard. This inexpensive, ubiquitous, and structurally essential material with a warm color and an irregular edge looks and feels pre-industrial-qualities that appealed to Mayer’s increasing interest in things both temporal and enduring. After buying several bundles, he began building simple three-dimensional structures that explored the basic principles of balance, gravity, and equilibrium. After cataloging the results, he found that these studio-based efforts could be rebuilt at any given installation site, often with locally acquired materials. Both “Glide” (1978) and “Cathedral” (1978) are based on keystone arch construction principles and share the same components-approximately 600 two-foot lengths of wood lath held together without adhesives. Through a series of finely calculated but simply achieved reconfigurations, the hunkered-down “Glide” rises upward to become the aspiring “Cathedral”. Shortly after making these pieces, Mayer developed his strategy of building large-scale installations almost anywhere the opportunity presented itself, which included sites throughout the United States, Europe, and at the São Paulo Biennial in Brazil in 1985. This building method has left him free to develop his ideas in the studio and then take them on the road; the success of a given installation relies on his willingness to relinquish responsibility for and final possession of the work to strangers.

In subsequent work, Mayer’s transformable and impermanent structures expanded to the metaphoric proportions of small cities, with references to huts, walls, towers, and tunnels. Increasingly he directed his interest in manipulating space toward the viewer’s perception of and movement through it. In “Pterokiste” (1987), Mayer incorporates the site’s ventilation system by surrounding existing columns and parts of the ceiling with stacked lath. Between the towers, lath pod forms occupy the space like mute sentinels. The transparent and fragile materials out of which these structures are made undermine their illusion of regimental strength. These are breathable structures on temporary guard duty; their collapse is imminent. As in most of his projects, permanence is relative and stasis is impossible. These conditions are what made the work that would follow seem all the more inevitable.

Glide, 1978. 2 ft. wood lath, 2 x 2 x 19 ft.

Since 1987, Mayer has begun to incorporate more natural and man-made references into his installations. At the same time, a newly acquired penchant for Byzantine flights of fancy has led him toward the fracture of formal composition. “Synecdoche” (1990), installed at the School of Architecture at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, expands his vocabulary of forms. Here truncated circular columns made from stacked wood lath surround tumbling open hemispheres made from long wood strips. These strips seem to be everywhere: they form grids on the floor; they stream forth in ribbon-like waves; they stand shakily in rows, splayed open to create what Mayer calls “walkers,” a non-geometric permutation that suggests tentative movement. All of it originates from a circular foundation of books checked out from the nearby architecture library (included are Bernard Rudofsky’s “The Prodigious Builders” and “Architecture without Architects”, Sigfried Giedion’s “Space, Time, and Architecture”, and Gyorgy Kepes’s “The Man-Made Object”). The books, due back in the library in three weeks, rest beneath a fragile open-form hemisphere; the time frame coincides with the three-week duration of the installation. Mayer once again invests a space with a host of intentionally vague and various phenomenological experiences; this time it is the implied celestial weight of the heavens that bares down on the ideas of man, if only lightly and temporarily.

Cathedral, 1978. 2 ft. wood lath, 10 x 2 x 4 ft.

In “Work in Progress” (1994), Mayer turns the formalist canon literally upside down by suspending a large curving grid above the installation site and piercing its side with twisted vines. The grid floats above a cadre of walkers and a single pod. By simultaneously collapsing and reconfiguring the spatial significance of the grid, Mayer maintains a connection to geometric order while challenging the notion of its impenetrability. Within the increasingly unruly world of such installations as “Linear Differentiation” (1994), “Linear Accelerator” (1994), “Line Dancer” (1995), and “Grid Line/Contra Natura” (1995), pods, walkers, suspended grids, and twisted vines become, as their names suggest, paeans to multiple forms of linearity. Always on the verge of becoming something else, line dematerializes the space through which it moves and lays bare the underpinnings of Mayer’s building process. Like an architectural structure by Frank Gehry (whom Mayer admires), these installations balance the raw and the formed within densely layered spaces. In “Linear Differentiation”, Mayer lays claim to his temporarily occupied territory with rows of walkers, twisted vines, and store-bought hardware (a recent introduction to his lexicon of space-defining materials). The vines divide the installation site into zones for old and new forms, allowing both to maintain a separate identity within the larger space. These divisions are more fluid in “Linear Accelerator”, where Mayer’s walkers and his overturned grids compete for attention with a myriad of other catapulting elements. Wheel spokes tumble down like gigantic brooches falling through space (a reference to his family’s jewelry import business); a ladder-his principle building aid for 25 years-dangles above; a bentwood rocker leg points upward.

Baldacchino, 1996. Wood and hardware, 15 x 25 x 25 ft.

In “Linear Accelerator’s” buoyant externalization of space, Mayer gives metaphoric palpability to the guts of his process. Yet at the core of even his wildest configurations are the deeper recesses of measured thought and action. He seems determined to offset the insouciant qualities of many of his found materials (particularly the twisted vines and branches) by neutralizing their contours. He does this by binding them in surveyor’s tape. Unlike the repetitive lath-stacking, which pays homage to structural change and temporality, the recent addition of wrapping seems more like an act of preservation, a kind of mummification. But to wrap or stack is a way to claim these things as one’s own. Both these poignant and admittedly futile attempts at controlling the ravages of nature and time point up Mayer’s conflicted relationship with formalism. He doesn’t always like the look of natural and man-made referents, but he wants the layered meanings they provide.

Linear Differentiation, 1994. Wood and hardware, dimensions variable.

Recently Mayer has begun to incorporate generic wire shelving into his installations. Accessible, modular, and transparent, this ’90s home-organizing material lets Mayer explore new ways in which to build transformable structures without using stacked lath. In “Baldacchino” (1996), he uses the shelving vertically to create four columns with a nest-like canopy of vines and hardware hovering above. In the center is a single pod surrounded by a series of walkers. Mayer’s inclination here is not to challenge the persistence of past forms, but to protect them. He constructs a safe haven, represented by the pod, for the nucleus of his efforts. This unlikely altar signals an emerging desire to create spaces that move the soul as much the mind’s eye.

Work in Progress, 1994. Wood, hardware, and vines, 23 x 26 x 20 ft.

In Mayer’s most recent installations, he continues to build permutations of wood, hardware, fencing materials, and pre-fab shelving, but for the first time it is their seeming non-presence that envelopes the space. In “Diastoline” (1997), an oversized spiraling wood strip leads to a pyramidal stack of fencing cylinders. As the metal cylinders rise upward, their finely gridded exterior begins to fade from view. Mayer’s increasingly subtle spatial manipulations open the door to new permutations, which on the surface seem more delicate. In the past, Mayer’s work often fell down during construction. When it fell by accident it meant the experiment had failed; when it fell by intention, it reinforced the work’s temporal nature and hastened its return to the void from which it had arisen. But in these most recent structures the void feels neither filled nor emptied; it seems ever-present. As the tracery of pattern becomes more ephemeral, the desire to escape the condition that Italo Calvino calls “the termites gnawing” becomes more apparent. In Calvino’s “Invisible Cities”, a fictive Marco Polo describes the cities of his travels to a fictive emperor Kublai Khan. The latter begins to dream of these cities too: “cities light as kites appear, pierced cities like laces, cities transparent as mosquito netting, cities like leaves’ veins, cities lined like a hand’s palm, filigree cities to be seen through their opaque and fictitious thickness.” Finally Kublai Khan realizes that Marco Polo’s digressions are not travel accounts from faraway lands but are instead the memories of one place-Marco Polo’s home city, Venice.

Line Dancer, 1995. Wood and mixed media, 14 x 26 x 60 ft.

Edward Mayer’s career as a builder of impermanent structures continues on an equally circuitous path toward home. With each installation, he creates a visual approximation of human thought at a given time and place. Through the repetition of his forms, the reuse of building components, and the permeability of his building process, Mayer is able to temporarily order experience without losing sight of the poetic futility of his efforts. In the end, all that remains of a specific installation is the shared memory of what its presence felt like, along with the slide record of the site. For Mayer, these visual souvenirs are good to have around, but it is the persistence of the idea of impermanence that keeps him building.

Corinna Ripps is an artist and curator living in Albany, New York.