Millerton, New York
In the window of Geary Contemporary, an intimate gallery in the middle of a charming upstate New York village, sits an incongruous tableau—a roughly-made iron boat impaled on a ladder. The object’s pathos and obvious mass emit enough gravity to draw the viewer closer. Peering through the glass, one can see more boats strewn inside. Their configuration resembles the remains of an ancient nautical funerary procession, empty of mourners, set adrift on a placid sea of thick maple plywood, ringed by smaller satellites and flanked by two bulbous sentries perched on wall-mounted sills.
“Lethe-wards,” William Corwin’s solo exhibition (on view through December 18, 2022), reads at first like a grim ode to humanity’s earliest means of conveyance. Boats are a staple of legend, both the tether binding us to a primordial aquatic ancestry and the ultimate peripatetic instrument. For more than 8,000 years, they have constituted a near-universal totem of human traversal, forms embodying escape and eschaton, implements of adventure, as well as adventure’s end.
But there’s more going on here. Once inside the gallery, the initial solemnity is undercut by the wry typographical jab of Lethe-wards Had Sunk. The sculpture’s title is spelled out in bas-relief inside its blackened iron bulk, stencil-formed sans-serif capitals speaking the visual language of military provisions. The Lethe, one of the five rivers in the underworld of Hades, was a mythical channel to forgetfulness. In ancient Greek, the word “lethe” means oblivion—an oft-pursued state, elusive and addictive. This boat didn’t survive the trip, and its absent captain is doomed to an eternal remembrance, denied the freedom of forgetting.
Suddenly, we realize that we are mired in a Devil’s Rectangle of failed vessels and are moved by an irrepressible compulsion to verify just how heavy these eight “boats” are. Closer inspection of Long Boat, One Passenger and Little Curragh provides evidence of Corwin’s quixotic decisions and reveals the peculiar details of his material dissonance. The coarse-woven jute texture of the heavy metal shells evokes the warp and weft of ancient maritime hymns; the roughly severed bowsprits, glinting umbilical remnants of the molding process polished by the abrupt bite of the cut-off wheel, draw attention to the crucible of their scorched birth; and finally, there are the ladders, which languish in every boat but one.
That first sculpture in the window, The People All Said Sit Down, Sit Down You’re Rockin’ the Boat, suggests a strange violence. Here, the ladder does not emerge from the boat, but pierces it, as if Charon’s ferry had the misfortune of dropping from its mythical travails straight onto the honed blade of human ascendency. This ladder is upright, robust, priapic—strong enough to sink a ship. All the other ladders look beat up, defeated, slumped like refugees in useless life rafts, exhausted from their unrecognized toil under the legions who have climbed them, grizzled veterans rescued from the trenches of relentless ambition.
Attention finally turns to the two inchoate figures first mistaken for sentries. Their inscribed names—Artemis and Artemis Ephesia—are puzzling. It takes a while for their relevance to crystallize. The Huntress and The Mother. Ladders and Vessels. Ambition and Nurturing? Wait. These boats cannot float. Artemis, the virgin goddess of the hunt and fertility, was sworn never to marry, never to bear children: a mother, denied. Oh. Corwin’s deliberate and masterful material catachresis reveals itself as a compelling paean to frustration and futility. The very emblems of buoyancy, cast in iron, become the stuff of shackles.