River, 2016. Hand-woven stainless steel wire and acrylic paint, 148 x 14 x 21 in. Photo: Thomas Barratt and Mark Waldhauser

Natalie Moore: Metaphor in Action

Natalie Moore, a longtime resident of Brooklyn’s Williamsburg and Greenpoint (she has a studio in Greenpoint), originally hails from California. In the mid-1980s, she attended the University of California, Santa Cruz, which is known for its experimental interests, particularly in the arts and humanities. Moore takes the same exploratory approach in her freeform wire sculptures. These works, though they suggest Alan Saret’s wire jumbles and piles, are more austere and formally oriented. But they evince a similar, often wild influence of improvisation—a prominent characteristic of American art in the ’80s, when Saret gained recognition—that balances a lyrical sensibility. Moore’s use of wire is notably free and evocative, sometimes echoing natural imagery such as undulating rivers.

Fire/Storm, 2017. Hand-woven stainless steel wire, hardware cloth, and acrylic paint, 55 x 36 x 36 in. Photo: Thomas Barratt and Mark Waldhauser

Her skilled handling of the medium raises a larger question: To what extent can art be considered formally radical at this stage in the game? The current emphasis on identity art, as well as politically and socially oriented art, tends to de-emphasize formal decision-making. It is extremely hard to tie social concerns to abstraction, which resolutely refuses the conscious content of a statement. Moore’s exquisite works do not make clear assertions—unless we view them as responding to a rapidly disappearing natural world. But even that point, which has some validity given the artist’s interests, tends to get lost in an overtly political reading. Perhaps we can take another tack: there is a short history of what writers and artists call “process art,” which emphasizes the inherent qualities of making and attempts, somewhat quixotically, to keep the process visibly alive in the finished piece. Moore’s work leans strongly in this direction, which offers a good way not only to describe her working method but also to assess her degree of success.

And yet, no matter how much attention we pay to an artist’s methodology, we have to assume that we are looking at a finished work of art. How do you regard a work whose final form is necessarily motionless—either physically or metaphorically—but is clearly improvisational in nature? How does one take into consideration the physical stillness of Moore’s efforts without losing contact with her swift thinking, which is meant to read as something in motion, even if only in an intellectual sense? Moore calls her wire works of the last few years “woven wire,” a description that captures their handmade nature while referencing weaving as a traditional women’s activity. She tends to leave her pieces in a state of manufactured abandon, emphasizing improvisation over fixity. The works may not move, but they have a casual air—as if they were not quite finished. The mood is one of deliberate unfolding. I am not suggesting that Moore has left undone what needs to be completed—only that her work is meant to resist constraint in a formal sense and, maybe, in a social sense as well.

Fence, 2014. Hand-woven stainless steel wire and acrylic paint, 180 x 48 x 12 in. Photo: Thomas Barratt and Mark Waldhauser

The Wind works (2017) offer a fine example of Moore’s improvisational style and interest in nature. Freeform in shape, with frayed, untied ends extending from the top and, to a lesser extent, from the bottom, they capture invisible movement and force. Billowing with energy, the orderly middle section of each work—very much a grid—is taken over by the unconstrained outpouring of wire at the ends. Color shifts reinforce the sense of air flow, as dark blues in the central core give way to flowering ends of gold. Beautifully made and beautiful to look at, the Wind works achieve a visible representation of something innately invisible—surely a notable sleight of hand. Indeed, wind can be seen as a pure example of process: it doesn’t begin and end so much as it comes and goes.

Wind #3, 2017. Hand-woven stainless steel wire, hardware cloth, and acrylic paint, 24 x 11 x 11 in. Photo: Thomas Barratt and Mark Waldhauser

The sense of ongoing immediacy is quite strong in Moore’s work, and it is expertly addressed in Fire/Storm (2017), which, like the Wind pieces, calls attention to something dominated by experience rather than by form (and maybe that is what process art is about: experience). A nest of silver, gold, and red wire threads, Fire/Storm sits on the ground, with a flame-like profusion of frayed red, purple, and gold wires issuing upward. The sculpture comes very close to realizing the image of a flame, without actual movement, offering a convincing facsimile of what it is supposed to represent (even without the hint of the title).

Ghost (2012) is also based on the invisible and ephemeral qualities central to Moore’s practice. An eerie mask, created with gold and silver wire, presents hollow volumes in a disturbing way—the head-like shape is thoroughly penetrated by emptiness, both in its central, cavernous void and in the spaces between single wires. Moore certainly set out on a difficult path with this work, attempting to give physical existence to something whose reality we doubt and that we are unable to see.

Highways and Byways, 2018. Hand woven stainless steel wire and acrylic paint, 200 x 32 x 18 in. View of installation at the Shirley Fiterman Art Center, NY. Photo: Thomas Barratt

River (2016), which consists of a longish group of horizontal wires in different colors, undulates slightly as it moves across the wall. Here, too, we are meant to see the work as process—as something stopped quite literally in mid-stream. Like Moore’s other sculptures, River takes no visual or thematic stance; it is enough to echo nature. Even if she comes from a rebellious and experimental educational background, there is no overt politics in Moore’s work, beyond an unspoken commitment to deliberate beauty as a means of liberating viewers stifled by the current narrowness of vision—there is nothing narrow or small in nature. (We can also deduce a bit of defiance in her use of wire, hardly a luxury material.) Nature needs to be actively protected, not least as an important repository of creative metaphor. In addition to preserving a vision from the world outside, Moore offers examples of metaphor in action. This is not directly political, but maybe it should be thought of that way. Process can hold true for almost anything.

This article appears in the March/April issue of Sculpture.