Aldwyth, the single-named South Carolina artist now having her first solo museum show, a retrospective, is a voracious collector, scrupulous cataloguer, encyclopedic archivist, sly social commentator and corrective art-historian. In short, she is a consummate artist.
Aldwyth resists the categories that others tend to put her into; although she dropped her first name in order to obscure her gender, she says she is not a feminist, and that her work is not political. She generally transcends the distinctions among genres, and avails herself of many traditions. Her work reflects influences from folk art and craft; obsessive outsider art; modernism, Dada and Surrealism; gender politics; and everything else going on in the world.
Her work, large collages and more portable sculptures, hits you in the gut and the brain in an expertly crafted one-two punch. She offers challenges as well as pure retinal pleasure. Intensely detailed, her mural-sized collages contain multitudes. Casablanca (classic version), a collage dated 2003-06 and measuring approximately six feet square, features a large dripping orb, somewhat reminiscent of the Sherwin-Williams "cover the earth" logo, but the drips are composed of hundreds of staring eyeballs. Each one is the eye of an artist, culled from photographic sources: a Chuck Close self-portrait eye, a Lichtenstein Ben-day dotted eye, the silhouetted eyes of squadrons of artists, known and unknown.
Altogether, then, Casablanca comprises a huge collective and reflective lens. Art history, in the form of artists’ eyes, is looking back at us, the viewers and descendents of that history, as if to say, "here’s looking at you, kid" (hence the title, Casablanca). She references over 100 artists or specific artworks from every genre and era in Casablanca alone (all indexed in the accompanying catalogue).
Upon closer inspection, many small tales unfold within the big picture. I’m reminded of the black-and-white classic, Sunset Boulevard, in which Norma Desmond, in response to "Hey, weren’t you in pictures? You used to be big," announces, "I AM big. It’s the picture that got small." Aldwyth is big, a virtuoso of juxtaposition whose small vignettes coalesce into large yet intricate works.
Another work, Document, approximately 40 x 76 in., similarly contains many tiny points within an overarching theme. Aldwyth begins with a 1950s edition of H.W. Janson’s famous History of Art, for decades the definitive reference source. Every entry from the book is cut out and pasted on to a new sheet of paper, but with Aldwyth’s additions and updates penciled in. Additions in the "K" section, for instance, include Frida Kahlo, Mary Kelley, Nancy Reddin Kienholz, Kohler Arts and Industry (where the artist had a fruitful residency, working with molten iron and other metals) and the Kitchen, among others.
Document is more than a witty and instructive reminder of the shortcomings of "official" history; the sheer volume of data, all in the form of small bits of text on white paper, pasted onto cream-colored paper, amounts to a grand ledger, an accounting of commissions and omissions, an incremental amassing of information, an attempt to tell and retell the never-ending story (a story that got even better after I saw my own name penciled in). Dated "1999-infinity," Document illustrates that a woman’s work is indeed never done.
Now 73, Aldwyth has been working consistently since the 1970s, has received a few grants and many residencies, and has shown at several Southern regional venues, mostly during the 1990s. In New York, she has had limited exposure, exhibiting at Allan Stone Gallery and the annual "Small Works" show at 80 Washington Square. But while living in what some might consider the middle of nowhere -- an island off the South Carolina coast -- Aldwyth is as knowledgeable as anyone about modern and contemporary art history.
One sculpture in the show, titled re-su-mé / re-sume (as in the noun meaning curriculum vitae, and the verb meaning to start again), is a box with many chambers, partitioned in the manner of an old lead type drawer. All four sides are hinged and the box opens up, or turns inside out, to reveal small bits of text cut from newspapers and pinned down like insect specimens within each compartment. The sections read like headings in a resume: "Guggenheim Fellowship," "NEA Grant," "Manhattan Dealer," "Obituary," etc.
Our artist, however, seems equivocal in her aspirations, as each of these items is covered over with a black "X," accomplishments as much rejected as unachieved; the word "work," however, has a check mark on it, signaling success in that most elemental category. Although re-su-mé / resume queries the value given to issues of status and success, it also has a rough and wonderful physicality, like a hand-wrought piece of furniture, that supersedes any sense of life as marks on a checklist. It also has drawer handles on top and furniture legs with old-fashioned rollers so it can travel. This is a sculpture with legs.
Closed up, Aldwyth’s box sculptures are mysterious and enigmatic wunderkammers, like those of Joseph Cornell. But unlike Cornell’s works, hers were made to be opened up and handled. They are not precious. They look sturdy and lived in, as if they’ve been around the block a few times.
Aldwyth’s DNA - the Vindication of the Idea epitomizes this dichotomy of unusual cabinet of wonders on the one hand, and earthy bunch of used junk given new life by the artist on the other. A cube-shaped box standing on iron claw-footed legs, it holds sliding drawers like flat-files, each of which can be pulled out and viewed on its own. The box contents can also be seen through a large dome-shaped glass on its top. The bottom drawer shows a collage of several hands, including the hand of God from Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam, all reaching towards an empty cutout center, as if toward the abstract idea.
Another collage, What’s Love got to do, got to do with it, got its title after Aldwyth heard that Amsterdam officials planned to convert some buildings in its red-light district into artists’ studios. Measuring 9 x 12 feet, the work charts a loosely allegorical path that an art object might take from idea through its many stages and sites. Along its bottom edge are images of water, symbolic of a "primordial ooze" and the source of life. One small section of this dense work includes a Milton Avery ocean scene, its water leading to a Pat Steir waterfall painting, which in turn seems to flow into Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater house (which is adjacent to an image of Wright’s first studio), whose waters in turn become the rain that Gene Kelley danced with in Singin’ in the Rain, where a weeping water nymph adds to the flood.
Above all this water, we rise into the spaces where these ideas are realized -- artists’ studios (those former whorehouses). Above the studios are commercial galleries, where, as Aldwyth put it, "we prostitute ourselves for money." Above it all are museums, the great cathedrals of art and architecture. But hovering in the center is a kind of open white bubble, serene amid the colorful hubbub of the ascending order. The white bubble is made of images of calm empty rooms, many with staircases to an unseen storey, a place of creation, of possibility and mystery. This vaguely brain-shaped bubble, differentiated in color, texture and density from the rest of the jostling imagery, is the real artist’s studio, the studio of the mind.
Via its particular symmetry and order, What’s Love. . . brilliantly conveys the trajectory of art from the fertile space in which the idea forms, through its creation and its commodification, on up through official canonization and enshrinement in the temples of high culture. The creation myth, from the artist’s point of view, could hardly be better explained and illustrated (the parting of the Red Sea is probably in there somewhere too). It’s what you could call an ovular work in the artist’s oeuvre.
Despite Aldwyth’s resistance to being classified as a feminist or political artist -- she just wants you to see the art -- I think she doth protest too much: making this work is a political act. On the strength of this show, Aldwyth may have to do a little revisionist history in her re-su-mé/re-sume. But I don't think she’ll have a problem keeping it real when she moves uptown into the Pantheon. She’s the real thing.
"Aldwyth: work v./work n. -- Collage and Assemblage 1991-2009" curated by Mark Sloan, premiered at the Ackland Museum of Art in Chapel Hill, N.C., May 30-Sept. 13, 2009. It subsequently appears at the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art in Charleston, S.C., Oct. 23, 2009-Jan. 9, 2010, and the Telfair Museum of Art in Savannah, Ga., Feb. 10-May 17, 2010. The show is accompanied by a catalogue and dvd, to be released in Spring 2010 by DAP.
Oriane Stender is a Brooklyn-based artist and writer.