Thursday, November 20, 2014

Martin Puryear at Matthew Marks Gallery in Chelsea

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Guess who was really born on December 25th?  That’s right, baby Mithras. He was a sun god in the Roman Empire who liked killing bulls and changing the zodiac every 2,160 years (his next change will bring in the Age of Aquarius). The Catholic Church placed Jesus’ birthday on December 25th because it was in fierce competition with Mithraism for some time (in fact, the Church appropriated lots of pagan holidays and turned them into Christian holidays).

Oh, what fashion accessory did this now defunct god enjoy wearing while slaughtering bulls?  Yes, a Phyrgian cap. His followers wore them as well. Later, in the French Revolution, folks who hated tyranny and valued liberty started donning this type of cap as well because they confused it with a ‘pileus’, a type of conical hat which freed slaves in Rome wore to boast of their newly found liberty. So in the French Revolution they wore a hat meant to celebrate freedom but, in essence, celebrated bull-killing and zodiac changing, so no wonder their revolution failed.

As a lover of arcane symbolism, ancient religions and mythology, imagine my surprise upon looking into Matthew Marks Gallery and seeing a giant Phyrgian hat!  Actually, initially I thought it to be a type of biomorphic art but upon reading what the artist said about the piece online, the work really does seem to be inspired by this type of ‘liberty cap’.  Nevertheless, I realized, looking around at the other pieces by Martin Puryear, that a common theme in this show of sculpture is forms that begin by ascending but then are drawn back earthward (as is the form of the Phyrgian hat – which, honestly, can also work as a type of biomorphic sculpture).

One of my favorite pieces seems to be some type of pod or round seed that has germinated a stem which, after ascending for a bit, duly curves right back toward the earth, apparently disappearing back into it. There are also some sculptures which, to my eye, seem influenced by the ‘golden spiral’.  This is the spiral we see in the nautilus shell and which is based on the golden ratio 1.618. It could be that the golden spiral was incorporated into the shape of the Phyrgian cap.  

So this theme of initial ascendancy followed by a submission to a stronger downward force is quite engaging and powerful when one views the pieces directly.  I guess there can be positive and negative interpretations of the process being depicted.  On the one hand these pieces could represent the invisible but powerful pull which, ultimately, thwarts our desires toward a ‘higher’ level of being, beyond malice and pettiness and into the realm of pure joy, forgiveness, love and fraternity. On the other hand, these downward spirals could represent a necessary process which first takes us up and away from the truth of our humanity only to help us become embedded more deeply in the real pith of being and experience.  There are, basically, two forces at work on many of these forms which the artist calls our attention to – an intrinsic organic force within the object that propels ascendency and an earthly, mineral force that pulls downward.  These outward forces affecting the various structures translate nicely into aspects of our inner reality.

If you go to this show, and you should, please be aware the sculptures are at two locations – 522 and 502 W. 22nd street.


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