Catherine Taft on Arlene Shechet

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It’s difficult not to read Arlene Shechet’s vibrant mixed-media sculptures as stand-ins for the body. Many of the artist’s polychromatic forms are human in scale and even in demeanor. Take Altered State, 2020—one of the eight works featured in this exhibition at Vielmetter—an abstract assemblage of glazed ceramic, steel, and painted wood, which bears an arrangement of headlike forms in black, gold, and blue balanced atop a stocky trunk. The object seemed to be gazing down at its own image, which was reflected in a series of electroplated chrome tiles at the work’s base. Indeed, this quasi-figurative Narcissus may have been regarding its “self” in the mirror. The gallery is close to Hollywood, so it’s possible that the New York–based Shechet was poking fun at the kind of self-absorption for which Los Angeles—a city full of beautiful creatures obsessed with themselves—is notorious.

Hollywood, as an idea and a location, seemed to haunt this show, which opened the same weekend that the now-infamous ninety-fourth Academy Awards ceremony took place, just eleven miles away from the exhibition space. Shechet’s show, titled “Best Picture,” contained neither pictures nor explicit narratives but nevertheless presented characters with big personalities. Punctuation, 2021, for example—a boxy form comprising painted hardwood, glazed ceramic, and powder-coated steel—was Chaplinesque in its stiff posture and flat splayed base, which called to mind the comical way the Little Tramp would arrange his feet for the camera. In Tell All, 2021, a misshapen ceramic form was perched atop a painted steel base—one of Shechet’s signature arrangements. Its scratched and punctured purple-and-maroon surface suggested a grimacing face framed by a thick mop of tubular, messily arranged “hair.” This work was the Lon Chaney of the bunch, the “man of a thousand faces” remembered for his portrayals of horror-movie grotesques. Punch Line, 2021, on the other hand, was the vamp, the Rita Hayworth: a luscious biomorphic thing teetering on long thin legs, its coral-colored cavities enticing the eye. A number of the pieces here were treated with gold leaf, as if Oscar himself had anointed these award-winning bodies.

In titling her exhibition “Best Picture,” Shechet set up her work in relation to Hollywood’s brand of aspiration. The loose association offered a starting point for thinking about the artist’s dramatic playful forms and painterly surfaces. Moreover, the positing of an abstract object as a picture was a confident conceit, suggesting that one might approach these works as tableaux. While viewers might have questioned whether these sculptures were meant to “picture” anything at all, one work in particular approached the pictorial, at least spatially. See Spill, 2019, was a seven-foot-tall cotton, wool, and acrylic jacquard tapestry that hung in the back gallery (a second, similar work was placed in Vielmetter’s private viewing room). Installed adjacent to Altered State, the textile piece shared the sculpture’s palette of black and royal blue, as if offering a microscopic close-up of the more three-dimensional object’s variegated wood-grain surfaces. The tapestry was a delightfully surprising inclusion, offering a soft counterpoint to Shechet’s heavy, muscular sculptures. Between the wall, the floor, and the body, this exhibition shifted between visual registers with an efficacy and effortlessness that have become hallmarks of the artist’s practice.

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