In the Phillips Collection’s latest exhibition, gold leather shoelaces burst out of a reimagined Statue of Liberty. The intoxicating scent of Stargazer lilies fills the next room. A dazzling display of seashells, bones and prosthetic glass eyes beckons visitors to stare in wonder.
“Pour, Tear, Carve: Material Possibilities in the Collection,” on through May 14, is a vibrant show that begs viewers to see, smell and touch the works (although, obviously, don’t, except for Valeska Soares’ steel “Fainting Couch,” the home of those fragrant lilies, which you’re invited to stretch out on) on display.
Things kick off downstairs, with aboriginal hollow logs rich with imagery by artists Naminapu Maymuru-White and Galuma Maymuru. In the stairwell, as you wind your way to the top floor, you pass a stretched canvas from Zilia Sánchez that juts out from the wall, spare and remarkable, a welcome reminder of the fantastic exhibition that focused on the artist a few years ago.
“Pour, Tear, Carve” features over 65 works from the museum’s permanent collection, highlighting how artists have used materials as ways to express meaning. What’s on display is astounding and varied: there’s dirt, sand, cloth, paint, paper, rubber, wire, charcoal, shoelaces and even old mustard packets. And it’s beautiful.
It’s useful to acquaint yourself with the organizing principle the co-curators, Camille Brown and Renée Maurer. “Pour, Tear, Carve” is grouped around four themes, memory, time, place and the senses, inspired by a quote from author Zora Neale Hurston: “I have memories within that came out of the material that went to make me. Time and place have had their say.”
“The idea was kind of centered around wanting to focus on our permanent collection, and thinking about the ways that we could tell new stories through some of these objects that have been seen a lot, as well as objects that are newer to our collection,” Brown told The Washington Diplomat, noting she was spurred to focus on materiality by a former professor’s discussion on “how the history of art is built on materials, but not a lot of artists who are making work are thinking about that.”
“We thought about how we could kind of tease this idea out and expand on it and think about how we could apply this to the objects within our own collection,” Brown said.
The pieces they selected, Maurer said, “all had a sort of physicality to them. There was something about them that we wanted to learn more about—how were they made, what were they made of—that kind of thing.”
“And so that process kind of brought us into our storeroom. We were back on site, we could go into our own inventory, pull out paintings from the racks, go into paper storage,” she said.
The gold leather shoelaces mentioned above are found in Rozeal’s “Gold ‘n Browns of, uh … ’Merica,” while you’ll spot the seashells, bones, and eyes in Alfonso Ossorio’s “Excelsior,” a stunning piece that explodes familiar religious iconography.
“It’s sort of a meditative object, but it’s made out of interesting and odd entities that are brought together,” Maurer said.
Everything here is about making seemingly unusual juxtapositions sing together, whether it’s unexpected materials or discordant artists.
Dan Steinhilber’s “Untitled (Mustard Packets)” uses condiments from the Mayflower Chinese Carryout in Mt. Pleasant. This piece filled with these small, forgettable items took him 20 years to dry. Across the room is the striking, spiky “Dandelion Clock” by Jeanne Silverthorne, massive and strange. There’s beauty in the violence of Chaïm Soutine’s “The Pheasant,” oil on canvas, all vivid brushstrokes and both the sense of death and a feast to come.
A room on places (“real and imagined”) takes visitors from the toppled Confederate monuments of Richmond, Virginia to a female utopia. Amy Cutler’s “Idle Spinners” features women at work in a circle, manipulating hair to who knows what end. It’s strange and transfixing, 3D and wholly invented. When you walk into the room you take it and Marc Chagall’s lovely, transcendent “The Dream” together in your line of vision. A rooster rises in the air. An angel falls. And two people embrace on a bed.
The materials on display, from leaves and beads, to LCD, are collectively and individually stunning. The bright white shock of light emanating from Nekisha Durrett’s “Eleanor Bumpurs killed by police on October 29, 1984 | Age 66” incorporates a magnolia leaf perforated with Eleanor’s name, illuminated within a shadowbox. You won’t forget it once you’ve seen it.
Glass juts out of plywood in Laddie John Dill’s untitled work sitting beside the large and intimidating Richard Serra “Reykjavik,” Paintstik over screenprint. Across the way, a familiar and personal Phillips favorite, “Moonlight Cove” by Albert Pinkham Ryder, cracks amid a shimmering night. The layers he painted have meant his work takes on new form today than what he intended in 1880.
Jeffrey Gibson’s “A RARE AND GENTLE THING” is acrylic on deer hide on panel, with glass beads and artificial sinew inset into a wood frame. Inspired by Dolly Parton’s song “Love is Like a Butterfly,” the artist mixes modern materials with his Choctaw and Cherokee heritage, and the whole thing sings.
There’s LCD lighting in the show thanks to Leo Villareal’s “Scramble,” a rhythmic exploration of color and shape. At the other end of the room is a Sam Gilliam canvas reveling in the power of texture and a late Cézanne that exists in abstraction and sensation.
As you stare at these two works, a new sensation invades: smell. The “Fainting Couch” hides Stargazer lilies in its interior compartment. You cannot see them but the smell is exhilarating, unavoidable, as steel mixes with flowers and scent combats sight.
Jae Ko’s seismic untitled work on display, made of rolled paper, glue and calligraphy ink, swirls to life in a burst of red on the white walls of the Phillips.
“It’s all about experimentation with paper, and I kept pushing it, what it could do,” Ko told The Washington Diplomat, noting she has worked with the material for decades.
Made of machine receipt paper, twisted and curved, there’s a smoothness and a delineation to the piece on display here, all mixed together. Ko said her practice is shaped by wanting “to do something special with” paper, to “take one step forward” with the material by wrestling with it in new ways like twisting it, rolling it, stacking it, or even soaking it in water overnight.
“It’s challenging, using such a common, ordinary everyday medium to create such uncommon forms—and with it, new visual and sensual experiences. But at the same time, I transform the paper. And at other times, the paper transformed itself,” she said.
Another standout piece is Marta Pérez García’s “Nameless 7.” A headless black form twists slowly on strings in the corner, a response by the artist to the increase in domestic violence during Covid lockdowns. It’s haunting, this form made of colored abaca paper, shaped across a commercial mannequin. As the artist states in the exhibition text, “abaca does whatever—it fights back. . .there is the surprise of the materials; it has its own voice.”
The exhibit also forces visitors to rethink familiar Phillips holdings, like Wolfgang Laib’s Wax Room. Here, we see the beeswax blocks piled on top of each other on the floor, brilliantly fragrant as they await their transformation to be melted and used to maintain his main work. There’s also a maquette in bronze of Barbara Hepworth’s “Dual Form,” the bronze sculpture on display in the museum’s courtyard. There’s a welcome invitation to go view the final sculpture after seeing this model, and compare the experience to seeing it in natural light.
“Being able to kind of highlight those stories of how materials change, how artists are thinking about materials, can just deepen anybody’s understanding of the story of a work of art,” Brown said.