Abigail DeVille, whose “Hooverville Torqued Ellipse” went on view at ICA last week as part of the exhibition First Among Equals, is reading a book about black holes. It’s early, and she’s getting ready for the last day of installation. When I ask her if she’s interested in black holes for her art, she tells me yes. “I use them as metaphors for historical erasure,” she says.
“Hooverville Torqued Ellipse” is an installation within an installation. Abigail was invited by Yuka Yokoyama and David Dempewolf, who run Marginal Utility gallery, to participate in their series of installations as part of First Among Equals, a big show at ICA that explores different ways that artists work together. In their exhibition-space-within-the-exhibition-space, Marginal Utility has organized a new installation every few weeks, reconfiguring 15 large black wall panels in different shapes each time to enclose and define each artist’s work. Abigail is the last in the series, and for her run, the black panels have been pushed back and nailed to the gallery walls, providing the generous space her “Ellipse” needs.
Abigail’s construction is a distressed version of Richard Serra’s 1998 sculpture, “Torqued Ellipse IV,”
only done in scavenged wood and cardboard instead of steel. The distinctive Serra-like shape rises from the floor in ICA’s first floor space, gracefully dipping and lifting. So far it is mostly a skeleton of reclaimed two-by-fours, with a few patches of old cardboard stapled to the frame. Abigail pulls a large cart piled with more big scraps and patches into position, chooses a piece, and staples it to the structure with a staple gun. Then she goes back and chooses another.
“You’re good at stapling,” David notes. He and Yuka join in, pounding and screwing the distressed, waterlogged, ripped material into place. Abigail works the fastest, seeming to know in advance where everything should go. She is quiet and confident, occasionally picking up a scissors to cut or rip the cardboard into a different shape. The noise of her stapling is steady and sure. When David uses the drill, it resounds like thunder, drowning out the Beach Boys music playing through someone’s ipod. David sets up a ladder and climbs to reach the high parts. Slowly, the stark ribs disappear under a rich patchwork of trash.
This project grew out of a week Abigail spent at RAIR—Recycled Artist-In-Residency—a Philadelphia group that brings artists together with the waste stream. RAIR’s Billy Dufala and Lucia Thome provided crucial support, and Abigail sings their praises along with RAIR’s: “It was beautiful,” she says happily, “all these piles of materials.” A perfect fit for an artist whose MFA-student studio could barely hold all the found materials she pulled in from the New Haven Streets. Like Serra, Abigail got her MFA in painting from Yale.
Later, in the lobby, during a break, I ask Abigail about David and Yuka helping with the work.
“I love it,” she says. “It’s not the same handling of the material throughout. I’ll go back at the end and put the finishing touches on myself.”
I ask, too, about the connection to her interest in astronomy. There aren’t any black holes here, but the ellipse is a quintessentially astronomical form, the shape of the orbits of heavenly bodies: planets around suns, moons around planets. “I’m always thinking of an astronomical relationship,” Abigail says. “Everything is connected—what’s in us is in stars. It’s a shame to get bogged down with what’s down here.”
Back in the gallery, the almost-finished piece looks monumental yet provisional, graceful but unkempt. The hues are mostly shades of brown, but bits of reddish orange plastic wind up one side. Further along, a square hole gapes like a missing tooth. A flap of cardboard hangs like a flap of skin, revealing white and brown bits underneath. Wounds, patches, decay, reclamation. The structure rises from the floor like a hastily built ark—though with no bottom and no top. It would neither float a desperate crew over a flood nor shelter a family in a storm.
One thing about RAIR is that all the materials used in its projects need to be returned to the waste stream when the project is over. Just as what’s in us is in stars, so this stained, pock-marked lumber and weary cardboard may, months or years from now, resurface as another—entirely different—work of art.
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