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Nancy Jurs: Deja Vu
A walk down memory lane with the artist’s ceramics and mixed media.
Everson Museum of Art
50/50: Nancy Jurs
Syracuse, New York
February 7 - May 3, 2009
Nancy Jurs gained recognition during the 1990s for her chunky ceramics that riffed on functional domestic ware. At the same time, she created a number of ambitious, large-scale ceramic sculptures that elaborated on the shapes and surfaces of her intimate efforts, but encompassed a more complex conceptual purpose. Her fired clay had the appearance of expressive cubic forms that might have been roughed out from blocks of stone. Surfaces bore the metallic, iridescent lusters associated with long-buried objects. The overall character had a rough-hewn strength, organic in feel, even geologic-something shaped by nature over time.
"50/50: Nancy Jurs" features several exemplars from this period as well as a varied array of newer sculptural installations. These range from monumental stoneware constructions to fragile lint-based tapestries; from arrangements of unaltered found objects and assisted readymades to recontextualized samplings from the past 50 years of the artist's work. "50/50" is an ambitious but uneven show: Jurs has a tendency toward overdetermination-a literalness that leans toward platitudes when suggestion could have produced poetry. Her most successful works have an open-ended quality, where just the right amount of allusion encourages the viewer to consider meaning while appreciating the visual and aesthetic physicality of the sculptural arrangements.
"50/50" functions as a retrospective even though most of the works have achieved final form during the last five years, and three of the ten displays debut here. The retrospective nature of the exhibition is defined by the inclusion of reworked objects drawn from across the artist's oeuvre and by the diaristic impetus that lies behind many of the assemblages. Through a process that she refers to as détournement, Jurs recycles older work in some of her new installations, altering the tenor of her original intent through various formal and conceptual sleights of hand, including mass groupings, over-painting, and lengthy labeling. Jurs con- structs a memoir of sorts, where gleanings from autobiography, personal collections of bric-a-brac, and preexisting output provide inspirational fodder. At its best, this methodology results in engaging ruminations on temps perdu or the weighty seriousness associated with displays of classical statuary. Weaker outcomes resemble a homey, cottage aesthetic commonly found in tasteful shelter magazines. Where this process yields the least rewards, the installations require didactic expositions that limit even as they illuminate.
A particularly recondite example of Jurs's process of reclamation is represented by Déjà Vu: Fifty Pieces, Fifty Years (Separate and Equal). It is a very large installation that features one piece from every year of her art practice. Each object has had its original surface covered in whitewash and is arranged among and on similarly painted found objects-an antique mantle, four architectural columns and a woodsy table and chairs. It is tempting to recall the example of Louise Nevelson and Dawn's Wedding Chapel, but the reductive nature of Nevelson's monochrome seems to work against Jurs's retrospective goal. By muffling the characteristics that could construe a chronology, she leaves us with an anachronistic jumble, a seemingly bewitched thrift shop where anything that might be of interest has been ruined by a thick coat of paint.
Fortunately, not every détournement leads to the bazaar. A room-size installation of disparate works from the past two decades entitled World Peace: Finding Common Ground (We're All in This Together, Do Unto Others, Your Move!), takes on a unified grandeur because of the integrated employment of objects, pedestals, repainting, and concept. In World Peace, preexisting sculptures, based largely on the human torso, have been turned into monumental chess pieces and then staged on a circular checkerboard. Here, a new cloak of paint furthers conceptual meaning: The work's achromatic scale, black to white, encom- passes both opposition and a coming together in the gray shades of compromise.
Although most of the exhibition is mounted in two of the main, white-box galleries, various works are sited throughout the Everson's three levels. Several of the most assured sculptures are placed so that they interact with the museum's architecture, a monolithic structure designed by I. M. Pei that features bush-hammered, poured-concrete walls and granite-aggregate flooring. Works like Triad, Legacy and Safety in Numbers are enhanced through dialogue with the building's geometry, palette and texture.
A complicating component of this exhibition is the way it highlights the mechanics of gallery display. How the works are presented, the manner of their accumulation, their mise en scène, assumes an importance that equals, or even eclipses, our encounters with any single object. Does this point to a lack of confidence on the part of the artist (One is never enough)? Or is it the result of an exuberant maximalism (If one is good, three must be better)? This might be the spot to cite the familiar Miesian caution, "Less is more," but his dictum has been successfully countered by other artists on many occasions. At her best, Jurs does balance formal and conceptual interests, permitting her objects to speak without an overreliance on gimmickry; those installations sing. Her voice falters when indulgent or uncertain collections of ideas and practices overwhelm any attempt for appreciation.