A pop of teal guides our gaze down from a perfect black circle spliced into a seven-foot sculpture composed of interacting layers of dyed hardwood, steel, glazed ceramic, and silver leaf. The imposing totemic object in a white-walled gallery challenges our perception, how we oscillate between interior and exterior spaces, and how we emotionally navigate the obscure spaces between the forms in the sculpture. Natural light on the walls eliminates the need for electricity.
History Mystery (2022) is a highlight of Arlene Shechet’s solo show, Couple of, on view at ‘T’ Space, a non-profit art gallery in Rhinebeck, New York, through August 28. The exhibition follows recent solo presentations in Hong Kong and Los Angeles, drawing the work back to the Hudson Valley where Shechet lives and works. Couple of also coincides with STUFF, an expansive group exhibition organized by Shechet at the Pace Gallery flagship in New York’s Chelsea neighborhood, showcasing her curatorial eye and inviting into an intimate setting and her interactions with other renowned artists, many close friends.
The main installation at ‘T’ Space features three sculptures, each executed in a different material (carved wood with steel, cast iron, and glazed ceramic), displayed together to underscore Shechet’s mastery across mediums and her fluidity in amalgamating seemingly unrelated, discordant forms and materials.
Shortly after giving birth to her first child in 1986, Shechet began exploring a new technique: building a form, splicing it in half, rejoining the halves, and severing the new form apart again along a new axis. Years later, she realized the organic connection between motherhood and her creative journey with schism and jointure, which continues to imbue her singular practice.
Shechet’s distinctive, biomorphic sculptures which erupt with vibrant color, marry technical skill and intuition, eschewing drawings or armatures (framework around which a sculpture is built). Shechet relies on improvisation and possibility, creating ceramic works layered with glazes over multiple firings.
Shechet’s sculptures are an interplay of texture, color, materiality, imagination, and an amusing awkwardness to bring the viewer joy. We generally think of the literary interpretation of couplets as two lines of poetry that usually rhyme, but Shechet’s visual narrative emerges from the formal balance of symmetry, partnership, and the artist-artwork dyad.
We’re humbled to encounter Iron Twins (2022), two 650-pound cast-iron forms which stand just over two-feet high and retain material traces of the original plaster forms, including tape markings and other flaws born from the casting process. We’re reminded of the human form, replete with its imperfections and unique traits.
The exhibition extends outdoors to a site-specific work displayed on the nearby ‘T’ Space installation trail. Spot Light, a high-fired partially glazed porcelain sculpture, is nestled between two trees and the natural rock formations of the ‘T’ Space 30-acre wooded preserve, blending into the landscape.
“I was interested to find a site to do something outside,” said Shechet, describing a walk through the preserve where she encountered “a small mountainous rock. I saw a crevice in it. And there were two trees that were framing this site and I said ‘okay, that’s it, that’s my site’. We mapped the site and the crevice three dimensionally with strings and sticks, and back in the studio made a sturdy framework that had the space of the crevice as its negative, basically building the inside of the rock. Then I made a white porcelain piece from some parts of porcelain that I had leftover from my Madison Square Park project that I had cast at the Kohler Foundation, and we installed it, and it was a super great visual.”
Architect Stephen Holl designed the cedar gallery space, named for its “T” shape, on a four-acre site near a stone “U” house from 1952, with a steel “L” addition from 2001. Free of plumbing and sheetrock, visitors enter the gallery via a sloping wooden ramp and exit on a wooden ramp through a large pivoting wall. The gallery floats over the landscape, blurring boundaries between nature and structure.
“The opportunity to be sort of in the woods and have art, that’s the next frontier,” said Shechet, who is already planning another show at ‘T’ Space.
Shifting away from her heavy creations in Rhinebeck, Shechet flexed her curatorial muscle for STUFF, to draw together 50 wide-ranging artists across disciplines and genres and within and beyond Pace Gallery’s program, including Lynda Benglis, Huma Bhabha, Nicole Eisenman, Wifredo Lam, Arthur Jafa, Donald Judd, Louise Nevelson, Isamu Noguchi, Tony Smith, Mickalene Thomas, Lawrence Weiner, and Stanley Whitney.
On view at Pace through August 19, STUFF parallels and informs Shechet’s sculpting practice, presenting work outside of art historical context and chronology, intuition guiding both her creation and curation. Selecting peers and artists she admires, Shechet presents the works in dialogue with each other from her inimitable perspective. She takes over a full floor, conveying a familiar mood that playfully welcomes us, stripping away any pretense.
Our first glimpse of STUFF is a wall covered in wallpaper created by Shechet to mirror the walls of Fran Lebowitz’s bedroom in Morristown, New Jersey, as captured in a 1974 portrait by Peter Hujar. A naked Lebowitz is propped up on her elbows, enveloped in polka dot sheets. Lebowitz’s casual stare is emblematic of the tone Shechet spreads throughout the gallery, making us feel at home, in her clever aesthetic home.
“Because I’m an artist, I feel liberated from hanging a show within the art historical narrative. And also, because I’m a sculptor in particular, I felt like I wanted to create more than installation, not just hang things around. When I saw that, I said we have to have this T wall. It’s basically an irregular T,” Shechet explained during a private walkthrough of the exhibition. “I immediately got the idea that I would make that wallpaper. It’s silkscreen, so it’s a sort of satiny iridescent, which almost seemed a little New Jersey to me. If you look up a little and see the way the light hits, it’s almost a very matte black. It’s much nicer than the original wallpaper because it’s handmade. I had this idea of making these walls like a free floating sculpture, so they themselves are like my contribution, my sculpture within this, because traditionally, I would not want to put my own work in a show I curated. But the hanging of it, the designing of it, the choosing of all the works, and also the painting of this line, and that color, relates to my work.”
Shechet painted a meticulous, subtle line on the interior walls to gently fix our focus on how the works are hung. Every detail reinforces Shechet’s commitment to giving us a new way to approach an array of familiar works and ones we’ve never seen before. Her unorthodox viewpoint offers us a refreshing opportunity to reimagine how we experience STUFF, rethinking the myriad fungible associations between art and artists.
“In my own titling of things, I love when things have multiple meanings,” said Shechet. “That kind of slippage and stuff is very intriguing. I love when it becomes like a verb and a noun and an adjective, it has all those possibilities.”