Yes, Virginia: catalogue essay for Alternating Figures

03/01/2002

Alternating figures are defined in scientific terms, Maksymowicz tells me, as "ambiguous diagrams serving in the psychology of perception to illustrate the way the mind habitually tries to achieve a coherent Gestalt. An example is the famous impossible trident, the bottom half of which seems like a square "u," and the top half like three prongs. Op art occasionally makes use of the phenomenon. One might speculate whether there is a non-visual cerebral equivalent which could be useful in discussions of ambiguity or plurivocality." 

(Arlene Raven, referring to a communication from the artist, November 19, 2001.)

 

Water flowing downstream is carried mechanically upstream, is dumped and flows back. Some is lost along the way. More water is transferred downstream mouth-by-mouth, loses oxygen, is mixed with saliva and is given back to the stream to be altered again. A word is silently formed, is recognized from a distance and is passed in that manner upstream, changing its identity, and is spoken to the trees. A word shouted from person to person, so loudly as to be misunderstood, rushes downstream similarly and is silently conveyed to the air . . . . Human breaths are collected and conducted downstream by hand. Small bits escape . . . and the container is then released to the winds.

Allan Kaprow, 9/74 - 4/75, in ECHO-LOGY

 

We say everything comes back. And you cannot divert the river from the riverbed. We say every act has its consequences. That this place has been shaped by the river, and that the shape of this place tells the river where to go . . . . We say look how the water flows from this place and returns as rainfall, everything returns, we say, and one thing follows another . . . and everything moves. We are all a part of this motion we say, and the way of the river is sacred, and this grove of trees is sacred, and we ourselves, we tell you, are sacred.

Susan Griffin, 

Women and Nature: 

The Roaring Inside Her, 1978

 

 

 

The art of Virginia Maksymowicz, as gathered and documented here, becomes for the first time a sited body of works. Each single effort and all together, "Alternating Figures" testifies to the artist's practice as a model of formal, material, conceptual, and moral integrity.

 

Maksymowicz, at the same time, stands solely, as her own model. Female figures and their fragments which populate installations such as Lily of the Mohawks (1995), What is it that we refuse to see? (1997-99), Garden of Earthly Delights (1998), Offering (1999) and Peripheral Vision (2002), like those she employs in earlier efforts, are cast mostly from the artist's body. In so doing, she bears the closest possible correspondence between (human) creator and (object) creation. "I'm interested in the body as narrative site," she says, "maybe because the only way we can take information 'in' and process it is through our bodies."[1]

 

Physical and spiritual knowledge coexist as substance in Maksymowicz's figurations, as realms grounded in the synergetic body shared by artist and art. "I know I am made from this earth," feminist philosopher Susan Griffin puts it, "as my mother's hands were made from this earth, as her dreams were made from this earth, and this paper, these hands, this tongue speaking, all that I know speaks to me through this earth and I long to tell you, you who are earth too, and listen as we speak to each other of what we know."[2] So say the silky skins of Maksymowicz's Lilies and the hungry open mouth at the core of Earthly Delight.

 

The interweaving of elemental substances such as clay and paper with the consistent yet ever-changing image of Maksymowicz's physical form during two decades gives her prototypes a generic quality. Their gentlewomanly neutrality allows not only for a merging of artist and object but also creates a kinship with viewers who have or may interact with her work, as a bridge spanning strong differences of class, gender, sexuality, race, nationality, age, and education among Maksymowicz's audiences.

 

An artist entirely formed in an era of available mass media, Maksymowicz has built her oeuvre using an absolutely contemporary palate and design. Born in 1952, the same year that videotape was invented and 17 million American families enjoyed television in their homes, the artist was educated in nontraditional modes of artmaking and has employed features of photography, video, Xerox, and digital reproduction in her work from the beginning.[3]

 

The care with which Maksymowicz has chosen and utilized materials has, through her intensive methodologies of exploration and refinement, produced a body of works that is nearly homogeneous in its phenomenal properties and authoritative as an incarnation molded with philosophical as well as physical precision. The artist's steady perspective and unswerving direction are additional anchors-intangible yet unmistakable-that temper the myriad societal concerns to which Maksymowicz has addressed herself over twenty years. The alchemical mix achieves a comprehensive synthesis that demonstrates the weight of its specificity of articulation as a personal declaration of truth, and leaves wide open and inclusive all considerations of ultimate meanings.

 

Maksymowicz's artistic tools are never valorized to evoke nostalgia, but instead allow sociohistorical elements to add their rich layering of felt humanism without interference. Thus, as a part of her process the artist creates the arena in which her art can, has, and remains a compass that points true north. In perpetuity.

 

A graduate student at the University of California, San Diego, during the mid-1970s, Maksymowicz enjoyed an education in an elite art department well known for its innovative faculty.[4] Allan Kaprow offered a "Zen" approach to artmaking and to the creation of a collective subject/self; Eleanor Antin fueled the younger artist's performative sensibilities. Italo Scanga encouraged Maksymowicz's use of found objects as pioneered by Duchamp after 1913. The late Ree Morton inspired Virginia to move toward installation art and to use text. Helen and Newton Harrison, for whom Maksymowicz also worked as a studio assistant, allowed her a role in the development of their artistic collaborations.

 

Maksymowicz's deeply embedded historicism and acute political awareness emerge as and in a social body synonymous with corporal matter and shape. Time, the first premise of social and political history, is particular. Of the Moment. Never linear, not yesterday or tomorrow. Eternally now, as time had freely floated before Renaissance cross-hatching squared off artists' blank pages; after the explosion of time/space in Einstein's configuration of the universe of the 20th century. As William Blake poetically explains in Auguries of Innocence, "To see a World in a Grain of Sand/And a heaven in a Wild Flower,/Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand/And Eternity in an hour."[5]

 

The History of Art, a series ongoing since 1983 (cast from life using handmade paper, acrylic paint and mixed media), literally and metaphorically brings the artist's torso into relief as its point of origin. Breasts and belly protrude as signposts mapping a seamless second skin that recalls the stretched canvas of paintings, the clay slab of ceramics, the writer's tablet. And the breastplate-mythic armor for preservation of the hearts of heroes.

 

Painted on each paper skin/shield is an exemplar of "Great Art." A Greek vase, a Pollock-like "drip" painting, an Op Art pattern, or a cave drawing on an ochre ground represents one of the select few "monuments" designated to define artistic excellence.

 

Painted on each paper skin/shield is an exemplar of "Great Art." A Greek vase, a Pollock-like "drip" painting, an Op Art pattern, or a cave drawing on an ochre ground represents one of the select few "monuments" designated to define artistic excellence.

 

When Maksymowicz first signed up for Art History 101, these treasures of her vocation (presented in tiny slides projected big onto screens the whole height and width of the stages of vast lecture halls) had still been exclusively limited to art created by European men.

 

Not to worry. Now/then happened to be the Right Moment. In the otherwise hushed rooms of higher education just about everywhere during the 1970s, Maksymowicz and her friends (sometimes to their own astonishment) began to mutter and grumble from their (female) peanut galleries.

 

Where, they wondered, were their forebears?

 

Why, in fact, were they in the peanut gallery?

 

A few even ventured that there might be something wrong with this whole "history of art" picture.

Several years later-at the very beginning of her professional life-Maksymowicz makes a decision that will color and shape her art from then on. As her first piece to be seen widely and over time, this young artist chooses to create an image that challenges and criticizes the entire history of art, including all of its current practitioners (on any of whose totem poles she will occupy the lowest rung).

 

She dares to conceive of this cardinal work as the first in a series whose dimensions could not be other than utterly unknown at that time. The commitment to go on, made two decades ago, takes on particular significance as a philosophical and activist pledge based on principles, values and-most vitally-faith.

Repetition counts crucially in acts aimed at changing consciousness. The History of Art, an often-reproduced anti-icon icon and familiar banner for the social change crowd, has spanned Maksymowicz's entire career to date.

 

Maksymowicz's attention to contextualization has also been constant and primary. Context-as background, site, or placement-is as essential to meaning as is any action that may "take place" within.

 

Thus, when searching out sites for exhibitions, Maksymowicz takes the deliberate step (whatever, in each instance, that step may turn out to entail) that will underline her original vision via its context. Often incongruous, Maksymowicz's displays in union halls, churches, storefronts, and on the façades of public buildings are bravely meant to be.

 

The fissure opened by Maksymowicz's sculptural forays into public space raises the temperature of the society created by her art, perched on potential hot spots, and its congregation of any and all viewers who may pass there. But although placement in time and space is indigenous to the art object and its process of completion, the same fevered emotions and heated insights can be ignited in museums, galleries, or studios.

 

Many of Maksymowicz's works are layered from personal to political with connecting threads of topicality. "During the 1980s, when I was back home in New York City, my work reflected my experiences as a secretarial temp on Wall Street." These were gathered into solo exhibits like "Insider Information" at Amos Eno Gallery and "Situational Ethics" at Franklin and Marshall College's Dana Gallery. Homeless Woman Kills Wall Street Financier (1987) was based on an event that happened in the offices of Deak/Perrera money exchange when the artist had been working just around the corner from the crime scene. Pennies from Heaven targeted Reagan-era trickle-down economics by juxtaposing a story about "Momma," a homeless woman who was found dead in Grand Central Station on Christmas Day, with a story about a secretary who saved her boss $250,000 and who was rewarded with two pieces of Bazooka bubble gum ("Guess who?," Virginia quips). Excess Assets (told from a secretary's point of view) intertwined stories of Drexel Burnham Lambert and the movie Wall Street.

 

Yet the activism of Maksymowicz's art runs straight through her practice regardless of divergent locations, media, personal circumstances, or time periods. Her participating in politically focused artist groups like Art Against Apartheid, Artists' Call Against Intervention in Central America, and Artists for Nuclear Disarmament suggests organizational and dialogical models that may be inflected in her compositions, the relative size and scale of linking components, or the artist's uses of texts.

 

Some works, in accord with issues and methods indigenous to Maksymowicz's political activities outside of the studio, are gestures of resistance; others, a flash of hidden information or ironic comparison; still others, the metaphorical act of putting her foot (as a representative part of herself) down. Then moving into the next step, taken up in solidarity, for justice.

 

In 1991, Maksymowicz moved to Philadelphia, where she resides today. First working at a variety of jobs not located in the same place, the artist shifted her emphasis. She began to take a longer and wider perspective on issues raised by the places reserved or carved out for women in history and culture.

 

In 1992, as part of an extensive series of shows connected to Columbus's 500th anniversary, Maksymowicz made Lily of the Mohawks. "I look at the overlaying of history and cultures through the story of one women, Kateri Tekawitha, who at the time, was on her way to canonization in the Catholic Church. In Garden of Earthly Delights I was interested in how the image of woman intersects with language, ornamental architecture and, in a metaphorical sense, the 'architecture of culture'."

 

Intersection of gender and culture has provided what the artist calls "odd coincidences."

 

What is it that we refuse to see? was not designed to begender specific, although Maksymowicz cast her own hands to cover the eyes of her image. As part of Artfronts, a Philadelphia program in which vacant storefronts are used by artists for public installations, she was assigned the site of a former pornography film store. The window stayed up for more than two years, until-ironically enough-the store became a bridal shop.

 

Maksymowicz's 1990 title, Disappeared, brought together three instances of vanishing women within the rubric of the martyrdom of St. Cecilia: the slaughter of students at a university in Montreal; the murder of the Jesuits' housekeeper and her daughter in El Salvador (along with their subsequent "disappearance" in news reports); and the obituary of a French woman who spent 30 years of her 33-year life in a coma, "but whose death," the artist notes, "did make the newspaper reports."

 

In Maksymowicz's most recent piece, Peripheral Vision (created especially for the Phillips Museum), the artist returns to the theme of disappearance.

 

Identical casts of a frontal female figure, almost 3/4-round in very high relief, begin at the feet and end just below the breasts. Each is mounted on an individual pedestal also carved in relief.

 

Uniting with the interior architecture of the gallery, the first persona may evaporate at the surface. The second could vanish through the floor. The last might climb a wall and ascend into the ceiling.

 

We share the physical and metaphorical space of Peripheral Vision with the potent (invisible) presence of these disappeared. Soon one is joined by another others we have always known appear, and then and those that we will surely come to know.

 

- Arlene Raven, NYC

   January 1, 2002

 

 

[1] All direct quotations of Virginia Maksymowicz are excerpted from communications between the author and artist during 2001 and 2002, unless otherwise noted.

 

[2] Susan Griffin, Women and Nature: The Roaring Inside Her (NY: Harper and Row), 1978, p. 227.

 

[3] U.S. inventors John Multin and Wayne Johnson demonstrated the first videotape on November 11 in Beverly Hills, California. See James Trager, The People's Chronology (NY: Henry Holt and Company), 1992, p.935.

 

[4] Maksymowicz received an undergraduate degree in fine arts from Brooklyn College, CUNY, in 1973, where Lucas Samaras had emphasized the interface of style and content, and Ron Mehlman demonstrated the critical importance of a work ethic.

 

[5] See Geoffrey Keynes, ed., The Complete Writings of William Blake (Oxford: Oxford University Press), 1966, p.431.

 

 

 

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