Top

Issue 142

Histories and Setups: Interview with Life of a Craphead
by Robin Simpson

.bq “But John says the very worst thing I can do is to think about my condition […] So I will let it alone and talk about the house.”
– Charlotte Perkins Gilman, “The Yellow Wallpaper” (1892)

These are familiar little things. Unfolding like a banquet of discriminating tastes, I savour the trifles in silver, fastening ties sweetly knotted, trims dressed in wooden pearls. On first entering the room, the sculptures appear in carnivorous arrangement, a tangled density in which shapes assume and consume other shapes. But as I advance, step after step, the pieces settle into good-humoured positions and remain handsomely spaced at an agreeable distance. Anne Low’s solo exhibition, Chair for a woman, features six meticulously crafted sculptures that could be classified as: a writing desk, a fire screen, a stool, a step, a chair, a doorway. The finely made pieces appear summoned out of ancient palaces and historic parlour rooms, bringing with them the affects of their matrilineal relations.

The gallery bulletin claims the exhibition disrupts strategies of display in decorative arts museums, but stakes this assertion almost entirely on the pale implications of a bespoke plinth. Its lancet shape transects each of the uncased sculptures in an unusual way, but to think that this gesture somehow unhinges museum customs or conventions is unsatisfying. But rather than dwelling on the incorrigible nature of exhibition practices, I will let it alone and talk about the sculptures. They offer an understanding of the sometimes surprising and circumstantial nature of object use, and the expectations we have for materials around us to perform.

I am charmed into the space by Ancestress (2018), a maple writing desk with a drawer pulled slightly ajar. A scrap of green-striped cloth plugs the space where there might have once been a knob, a handle, or— perhaps—even a keyhole, to guard the loose-leaf contained within. Atop the surface of the desk is a sheet of paper a stubby eraser, three silver casts of candle stubs, and two pencils foil-stamped with the phrases “bent back branches” and “in a thicket,” respectively. As though hastily abandoned, the undecipherable note on the desktop appears sealed into the varnish itself, the blotched confidences absorbed into the sculptural form. Ancestress coyly makes reference to Edith Wharton’s novel Age of Innocence (1920), a love story whose tragedy is owed to the aristocratic social mores of old New York. The sylvan fragments inscribed on the pencils allude to the moment when Wharton’s protagonist is caught in a lie of affections; the thorny graphite points are reminders of how easily one might find oneself ensnarled. But Low’s attentiveness to craftsmanship—particularly towards objects produced and owned by women—suggests that Ancestress is less a proposition of romantic longing than an homage to the author herself. Wharton’s personal history encompasses that of both novelist and esteemed designer. In addition to her Pulitzer-prize winning title, Wharton co-authored The Decoration of Houses (1897) with architect Ogden Codman, Jr., which quickly became an iconic manual. The repressive dictates of idleness and censured employment prescribed to the particular class of women to which Wharton—and many of Low’s other influences—belong are impudently challenged here.

How hungrily we peer into private spaces, I think, as I find myself pulled towards the far end of the gallery, which is flanked by another discreet opening. Bed chamber of a paper stainer (wall) (2018) is a relief sculpture that has been affixed directly to the white wall of the gallery. A hand-painted wallpaper clads the sculptural surface with the coiled tendrils of grape vines. The architectural fragment is entirely emptied of its framing details, apart from a heavy black moulding that adorns the doorway “opening” into the exhibition space. The doorknob is conspicuously missing, but this time the gaping hole is plugged with a crumpled piece of paper. I am tempted into the angled space behind the hinged door, where flaking papers have been scrappily pastiched and blotched by the occasional illegible mark. Three sheets of softly flocked wallpapers are neatly poised over the door, as though readied to finish the job of covering the hesitant untidiness of the previous styling. I think of the desire to pull off yards of the old and embrittled paper, under circumstances where the decorative gesture might be read less as frivolity and more as a self-sustaining gesture of occupation and activity within domestic space.

These sleights of openness keep me captive; this is the great curiosity of the work. The rest of the bric-a-brac is fussily congregated in the centre of the room. Everything has been so thoroughly touched: hand-painted, hand-woven, hand-dyed, hand-forged. But the clever details are not just ornament to the structural form, or subservient to some firmer substance. In the titular work of the exhibition, Chair for a woman (2018), a maple and basswood lion-footed frame lacks the actual seat that would be needed to constitute the piece as a proper chair, but care has been taken to apply subtle mother of pearl inlay to the vampiric puncture wounds in the joinery. Unconcerned with use-value—whether it will hold, whether it will close, whether it will bear weight—the sculptures are withdrawn into the tensions of making.

Appreciating these sculptures in the contemporary moment lodges an unsettling feeling in my chest. The continuity between past and present, which Low has materialized through crafts left alone by time, is marred by small gestures of pinching and plugging, cramming and scratching. I wonder what shock led to the draining of colour from the upholstered stool, Dead blood (2018), and I am concerned by the jerky countenance laboriously sequined across Grubby (2018), a decorative fire screen guarded by an armour of cheerfulness. The exactitude and finesse of each sculpture is subtended by acts that are only vain in the sense that they aim to recoup an element of privacy and power in a space of such small allowance. I keep myself busy appreciating every considered detail in impossible proportion, to somehow offset the narrowness of a life imposed.

UP