Sight, science and spirit

Jan 11, 2006 at 12:00 am

For more than three decades, London-born, Detroit-bred artist Judy Pfaff has had a prolific career. She has exhibited in numerous shows in international galleries and museums, and her work is in a bevy of East Coast collections and across the country. She’s a sculptor, painter and printmaker who’s even better known for her work as an installation artist, creating warehouse-sized works rivaling the scale of opera sets (oh, and she does those too).

The art world has bestowed upon Pfaff awards galore, including a 2004 MacArthur Fellowship and a monograph by Irving Sandler. But for all her accolades, too numerous to count, her career as a teacher is to be prized more.

Pfaff, currently an art professor and co-chair of the Art Department at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y., is a nurturing and engaging teacher. Lucky for the rest of us, she instructs with her art. Although she’d probably call her prints the easy stuff — “Making prints is like a vacation for me” — the works on paper at Ferndale’s Lemberg Gallery are like a lesson that gracefully dissects the mysteries of life, breaking it down beautifully while preserving its vitality. Pfaff is both a storyteller and mapmaker, exploring the science and spirit of the world and, more importantly, exposing the order we impose on it in order to make sense of things.

With the works in this show, Pfaff addresses dualism, which cognitive scientist Douglas Hofstadter defined as “the conceptual division of the world into categories” — good and evil, for instance. Pfaff often depicts art and science, and Western and Eastern traditions as parallel worlds. In many of her large-scale installations, audiences have the chance to move through the room and perceive her ideas with their minds and bodies. Here, Pfaff’s art is two-dimensional; her ideas have been collapsed. Yet she still achieves tremendous depth, literally and figuratively, in a mix of decorative and representational imagery on a backdrop of pleasing washed palettes.

“Untitled (target, garden, lily pad)” is a composition of three square panels that reads from left to right, and ascends in height like a staircase, so viewers can shift their gaze back and forth upon resemblances between different forms in nature. The left panel contains an image of concentric rings (she refers to it as a target); the second features a photo of a manicured, tree-filled garden, and the final, largest panel presents an early textbook diagram of a lily pad, positioned above an actual, dried lily pad and a set of elegantly intertwined ferns. As in many of her other works, Pfaff studies the similarities in nature on micro- and macroscopic levels. Here, the form of a leaf resembles a tree in the landscape, and they’re both similar to the spiral-like “target” at left, which could be orbits of electrons or ripples in a pond. The entire piece is a wash of green with yellow, the color of chlorophyll, which makes life as we know it possible. Whether we’re aware of the color’s significance from a scientific standpoint, it’s a green we immediately recognize as a sign of health in the natural world. The color is a great artistic choice because it’s also decorative, infusing the composition with a vibrant and ethereal feeling.

The scientific and artistic also merge together in Light or Half Dark, no. 2, a black-and-white etching that resembles an array of beautifully strung pearls or a bejeweled chandelier, but could also be viewed as the tiny, translucent unicellular organisms known as diatoms, or perhaps the trails left on an X-ray by otherwise invisible particles.

In several works, Pfaff compares elements of botany, biology and technology. One, called Money Tree, features a drawing of what looks like both a circulatory system and a network of tree roots, rendered on paper stained dirt brown. She cuts a pattern of small circles into the paper, revealing an orange layer beneath the surface. From a distance, the hole-punches read like sun dappling the paper or bits of binary code.

Such punch-card holes make their way into several drawings as architectural elements and as a decorative Victorian-era pattern outlining flora and fauna, but it’s also a direct analogue to today’s digital world. With her use of the Victorian-era patterns, Pfaff is drawing a comparison between the natural and the manmade, and combining historical and contemporary ideas about the makeup of the world. Long ago, the world held a mechanistic view of the body akin to a steam engine, organized in a system of pipes, levers and gears.

Pfaff presents dualism between cultures, specifically, the development of two societies on opposite ends of the world, in End of the Rain, one panel of a diptych that Lemberg Gallery has chosen to show separately. It’s an architectural “blueprint” separated into an upper and lower half. The upper portion depicts a typical American suburban home with a picket fence and crudely pruned trees, and the lower half contains architectural schematics for Asian pagoda structures.

The entire work is drenched in a deep, inky blue. Another part of the diptych is also colored a deep indigo, and features a solitary, silhouetted image of a tree emerging from the horizon, with a constellation chart inscribed across the sky. The lower half of the painting is a washed-out mirror image, as if reflected in water. This is a beautiful and haunting piece, and it’s hard not to want the story behind the image, which is as unsettling as a horror film, like the calm before the storm, and yet somehow sad and soothing.

Pfaff has defined her works on paper as “an interlude between sculptures, which are unwieldy, physically intense and slow-burning.” She says, “They sell, which is also nice.” You’d think someone with Pfaff’s acclaim wouldn’t need the money — but in the art world, notoriety doesn’t necessarily make you rich.

Not many collectors will hand over cash to buy one of her enormous works — it would never fit in their living room. Here is the stuff you could take home, and anyone who visits would surely want to.


Judy Pfaff: Recent Works on Paper runs through Jan. 21, at Lemberg Gallery, 23241 Woodward Ave., Ferndale; 248-591-6623.

Rebecca Mazzei is Metro Times arts editor and Nick Sousanis is arts editor of Send comments to [email protected]