With The Armory Show and its cousin once-removed, the Whitney Biennial, now in the recent past, what remains standing in the memory? For this viewer, several works about town, most especially Elizabeth Turk’s exhibition at Hirschl & Adler Modern, palliated an acute case of Stendhal syndrome and restored faith in art’s ability to be meaningful beyond a pedigreed checklist of fashionable names. Perhaps not surprisingly, Turk’s restorative works were time-based, demanding attention and more than a distant gloss. But beyond a remove from the visual, social, and financial spectacle that has come to define recent art fairs and the crowded collector marketplace, the tenderness, beauty, and technical virtuosity of these pieces stopped viewers in their tracks, equally engaging vision and intellect. Now, at a distance, they continue to do so in the mind’s eye.
Although far from innovative in contemporary terms, Turk’s marble Collars are thoroughly avant-garde in their disregard for recent dematerializing trends and in their privileging of object and process. Technically, they are amazing. The 16 sculptures in her New York show (plus five works on paper) represented five years of labor and were held back from the market until they could be shown as a unified group. The ensemble installation was particularly important for several life-size, meticulous reproductions of Elizabethan ruffs, symbols of rising middle class power often conspicuously portrayed in Old Master portraits. In a nod to the 400th anniversary of Rembrandt’s birth, Turk installed her works at human height in a configuration that echoed the original models and included/implicated the viewer. Yet this humanization was in tension with the wearer’s absence and the fact of the material’s stoniness. As a result, the works tip away from art historical reference into abstractions whose undulating waves evoke science as much as social history. With the color and thickness of good calamari or the well-rolled fondant of a very fancy wedding cake, the collars undulate in differing sine wave compressions. From above they resemble flowers, from the sides, with a bit of squinting, jellyfish and, from any angle, the circular orbits command all the atomic and anatomic metaphors we have come to expect.