Mary Frank describes the subject matter of her latest body of her work, much of it exhibited at a new show at Elena Zang Gallery titled “Refuge,” as about “evolution and de-evolution. For me, everything is about returning to origins.” We are standing amid the organized chaos of her large, skylit Bearsville studio, in which multiple works seem to be evolving and devolving on the floor, tabletops, wall, shelves and even in a water-filled glass fishbowl, where a stone with a painted black figure has been submerged.
For nearly a decade, Frank has been staging groupings of objects, using her own previously created artworks, to create collagelike tableaux that she captures in the lens of her carefully positioned camera. Many of the photographs (the gallery refers to them as “archival pigmented prints”) have been collected in a new book, Pilgrimage, which features a prologue by art critic John Yau and a poem by Terry Tempest Williams; Frank will be signing copies of the book at the opening at Elena Zang Gallery on Saturday, August 11.
In her photographs, she juxtaposes a clay or wax figure or head, drawing, cutout paper silhouette or painting – on paper, on a stone, or the wood floor of her studio, which serves as the backdrop for many of the images – with burnt pieces of wood, stones, leaves, flowers, twigs or other elements from her garden. The fishbowl, positioned against a window where it can catch the light, is one of the transformative elements in this play: In one photograph, a half-submerged clay figure appears to be drowning, arms raised as if in a prayerful appeal or ecstatic dance – the ambiguity of Frank’s narratives, which tend to ask questions, rather than provide answers, enhances the sense of mythic powers and mystery at play – while in another, a cutout silhouette of a figure in a red piece of paper, placed in front of the bowl, becomes a luminous dancing form in which the submerged flower stems and delicate white spindly roots in the bowl suggest the veins and organs of a spirit-creature. The images meld figure and landscape, suggesting a narrative of elemental struggle, archetypal quest or dreamlike vision.
“Refuge,” which runs from August 11 through September 4, includes recent photographs as well as ones dating back to 2009, plus several sculptures (in addition, in the gallery’s garden, several of her bronze sculptures from the 1980s are on permanent display). The artist, who was born in London in 1933 and grew up in Greenwich Village, first achieved recognition back in the 1950s for her carved wooden sculptures, which were inspired by ancient Egyptian art. Her archetypal nude figures, falling, climbing, crouching, leaping, striding or otherwise shown in action, as well as her contemplative and reclining figures – one body of work consists of life-sized bronze recumbent figures comprised of separate pieces, suggesting dismemberment and death as well as life-gathering energies – seem culled from the language of ancient art and myth, though their spatial distortions and displacements, simplicity of means and raw materiality speak to our own time.
Much of the power of Frank’s art, which has been widely celebrated in books and a film, stems from her inventive use of materials and startling compositional arrangements, in which opposites – such as near and far, body and void, flatness and three-dimensional form, release and confinement – are played off each other, creating striking visual patterns and suggesting inner states of consciousness that transcend the limits of time, gravity and death.
The new work in particular conveys the vulnerability of those on the move: a theme of timely import, given the refugee crisis in Europe and the depredations suffered by immigrants under the Trump administration. In one photograph, the clay head of a woman is attached to a mast, fashioned from a branch, above the painted flat prow of a boat, which is sinking beneath strokes of white paint signifying waves. Is the figurehead a benevolent force signaling hope and rescue, or is she a doomed, sacrificial figure, fated to go down with the ship?
In the piece When They Could, a group of black silhouetted figures gesticulating desperately for survival as their small boat is subsumed by a surging sea are painted on a rock that’s placed atop a painting of a large figure, outlined in a ghoulish blue-green surrounded by a circle of sienna. The difference in scale and dimension between the small figures painted on the stone and the large silhouette beneath it exaggerates their sense of helplessness and isolation and suggests their demise at the hand of an oppressor; or perhaps the large figure simply signifies the world’s indifference.
The agonized expression of the female clay head, shot against a black background, in I Hadn’t Known is reminiscent of the plight of immigrant parents whose children were recently taken from them by the US government. In another photograph, an owl, a symbol of wisdom in ancient Greece, flies through charred ruins constructed of pieces of burnt wood, against a lifeless landscape of stone and a heavy blue painted sky: a vision or portent of evil things to come. The owl in flight appears again, painted against a splash of white on a large brown fungus, comprising one of two sculptures from the series in the show; a three-dimensional stick figure, positioned on a small stand, whose proportions suggest starvation, strides before the brownish sky suggested by the side of the mushroom and turns its head towards the owl, which seems to swoop down in warning.
In the other sculpture – a freestanding tableau constructed of clay figures, burnt wood, stones and two backdrops of pastel-drawn scenes – the terrible event has already happened. In the post-apocalyptic scene, a small figure huddles amid burned ruins before a pastel drawing of a mountainous landscape with a monumental arch on fire; a mysterious robed figure, holding a child, is poised against the sky, before the painted fragments of a maze, perhaps symbolizing civilization (and its traps). Through war and folly, the end of civilization will pivot back to its Stone Age beginnings, the piece suggests.
In Occurrence, a photograph of a small sculpture of a stag-headed figure in a flowing striped black-and-white robe stands against an atmospheric backdrop in which is painted a mysterious symbol, a hieroglyph depicted in twisted tubular strands of white and rust, which seems to emerge out of a distant painted labyrinth, framed in black. The seerlike figure, poised on its celestial stage, seems to exist outside the physics of time and space, respectively represented by the intertwined tubes, which suggests an unraveling knot of roads and passages as much as a mysterious sign, and the mazelike structure. The actual space occupied by the figure, which is narrow and intimate, like a stage, fuses with the painted, illusionistic space of the backdrop, as if the enactments of ritual could be made concrete and the material and metaphysical fused. The photographic truth of the image further contributes to this dizzying conflation of literal and spiritual, channeling to us moderns a smidgeon of the awesome forces of myth and religion experienced by the ancients.
“Mary Frank brings us the news that has always been real and true: the indomitable will to survive, while believing that there is more to life than the struggle to stay alive,” writes John Yau in the prologue to Pilgrimage. “Her photographs are cenotaphs, reminders, chronicles of our ceaseless setting forth, acts of homage and resurrection. She looks at the world without blinking or turning away, and to be her readers we must follow her, wherever she takes us, as well as reflect upon what she is telling us, in images as sharp as the stones she has gathered, and tender as the hands that collected them.”
“Mary Frank: Refuge” opening reception/book-signing, Saturday, August 11, 2-5 p.m., through September 3, daily 11 a.m.-5 p.m., Elena Zang Gallery, 3671 Route 212, Shady; (845) 679-5432, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.elenazang.com.