Predicaments: Elizabeth McGrath


A chair suspended, two legs not quite touching the floor, captured by an ice blue silk net grown around the chair by a third party.

Instinctively cataloging the parts, you list the net stocking and the chair and then the predicament they each provide for the other. Chair and stocking are snared in relationship: stocking holds chair together--chair and its need imprisons stocking. The progenitor of this situation just sets it up and walks away.

If you happen to catch this piece at high noon when sunlight streams in through the skylight overhead you might see a shimmering dance of light on the gossamer-like gauze of the silk or perhaps the flickering glint of silver in the eye of a tiny insect busily taking over the world. Whatever you see, take it as a signal that a drama is unfolding beneath the casual and playful appearance of your surroundings in Elizabeth McGrath’s 1996 International Artists in Residence exhibition at ArtPace in San  Antonio.

The stocking, ensnared by its own committment to the chair just as a hang rope is committed to the dead weight of a body. The chair, hung up, not kicked away.

In this scene there is no body. Like the progenitor, it has disappeared, but the chair subs well. The predicament for the chair is that it has switched places with you -- the one who would stand upon it to reach the noose. Like a three wish grantee who’s made bad choices, the chair suddenly finds itself inhabiting a destiny it hadn’t planned on. No longer a prop in the background of a tragedy, it has become the tragedy.

We are so like the chair.

The chair understands we don’t grasp increments well. It doesn’t either, but unlike us it has a good excuse: it lives without the necessity to move, to do. Having no where to go, it knows nothing of the peril provided by the sheer number of incremental decisions to be made by a human being in the course of a single day. One opportunity after another to step out of a day in which some kind of destiny can be done and into an ever tightening spiral of just missing it -- what? Subtly your day is replaced by a facsimile of itself because each step you’ve been taking is a fraction of a degree off course. So the chair and its predicament take center stage, a tragic element in the midst of play. Perhaps what it’s saying is that a predicament lies at the heart of all events. The predicament of living.


A crocheted piece of clothing hangs on the back of a bathroom door. Because the arm and neck holes are closed the function of the garment (child’s dress, tu-tu, mermaid suit) is overtaken by the function of the hanger it’s made around and absurd associations arise (boomerang, duckbill, antenna). Parallel grids of association are formed by the fact that the two objects are dependent on the other for their formal appearances. The silk is held taut as it encloses the form of the hanger. These objects are perfectly superimposed which lines them up opposite each other and causes their separate meanings to shift into a display of tandem visualizations. This process creates the two grids simultaneously and aligns each new pair of associations. Each new alignment creates the corresponding point on each grid: another point opposite the other every time a new overlap of meaning is considered. This entire array of visualization is glittering in the dark and tasty. These constantly shifting layers of relation between the mutating garment and hanger are something from the alien insect. A shifty metamorphosis: these objects won’t be what their human history says they are.

We witness this benignly disquieting transformation. The crochet is caught growing. We notice that the weave of the silk is very grid-like as well. So now there is an objectified visual counterpart to that flickering crustacean of meaning which so recently sidestepped its’ way just outside our grasp. Distracted, our eyes are drawn inward and we listen. We hear the artist’s hands after the fact of their work and they sound like the just audible regularity of the spider’s pass around the web. And so we become privy to another mutation: artist as arthropod. We see evidence of a night weaving kind of tenacity, inhumanly insistent on its accomplishment, a trick of hand voiding hand.


Upon entering a space populated by the works of Ms. McGrath you will notice the near emptiness of the walls. Not the type of elegant economy associated with tastefully placed sculpture, but something more aggressive, more anarchist. Were it not for the artist’s disdain for the category “sculpture,” you might think this condition to be some sort of revenge for the well known reproach that sculpture is what you bump into when backing up to look at a painting. But this artist is not out to defend sculpture especially, so you may toss out the revenge element, while still maintaining some of that disdain for the “painting” category,  for this work is often placed along the seams, corners, cracks and peripheries of any given space, enlivening that space and foregrounding the lost and lonely aspects of it. McGrath’s mission is to find the areas of inbetween and she achieves this with an instinct both informed and mercurial.  Her work tends to lounge in a room or in some cases gathers there. None of this is to say that she is sharpening that old saw of art that is about the distinctions between painting and sculpture, but it is worth noting that if you were to stare at these blank walls ordinarily occupied by objects tastefully placed, and if you were to back up further to take in the emptiness, you wouldn’t so much bump into something as fall upon it and once down there you might be tempted to relax and hang out awhile. Comfort, pleasure, idleness, and play are natural responses to the predicament that you, the viewer, are in.

McGrath’s installation at ArtPace, surreptitisiously titled please watch your step, will put you in the mood. You might enter tentatively, having been forewarned by the lower case signage, but the laid back tone of the space further sets itself off from you: the room is already in its own groove.  The work, at first, seems to have been left more than placed, though the concept of abandonment contains too much intentionality. It is more like the work adjusts itself for comfort after being installed more or less close to where it should go. So you are not sure where you  should go (unless you are already in a comfort zone) in this room full of objects that are already so comfortable with themselves.  Maybe you are drawn sideways down the wall to your left by a row of automotive funnels lined up for art bowling. These dozen or so autozone-blue funnels, each placed small end up with a fruit cocktail colored superball crocheted to the the tip, are arranged in a row on the floor adjacent to the wall. The multicolored silk funnel snuggies, in addition to securing each ball to its funnel, also serve to differentiate each funnel from the next. Superball and crochet together resemble a form of plumage or sprouting such as you would find among the bizarre flora evidenced in Leo Lionni’s book, Parallel Botany. From the dozens of superballs which litter the floor of the gallery you might conclude, in a moment of gleeful anthropomorphism, that this work is engaged in some kind of pollination. I favor the interpretation that says these Clucks  are evidence of play, such as you might experience were you to line a teacup with fur.

 Across the gallery, at the point farthest from the entrance, light streams in through a skylight, flooding the three pieces in that corner of the space with drama. A broken chair is both held together and held captive by a blue silk crocheted net which swoops down from a pinpoint of origin in the highest corner of the room. This taut umbilical lattice is startlingly diagonal like a Flamenco move, and feels mischievous in the way of a comic book shapeshifter.  High on the wall to the right of the chair, a large snail-like form made of pink egyptian cotton terry stuffed with kapok seems to creep toward the skylight resisting gravity by sheer force of slow. A companion piece, Bugs,  flanks the chair on the left and leans deterministically into the wall in a bent-kneed slouch. These torso-less hips and legs, characterized by the artist as “Bugs Bunny from the waste down,” (1) slump like discarded purpose in the pre-ascension light. The loosely stuffed cashmere legs support no torso and are just sealed over at the waste with more of the same material. They are positioned against a wall, “face” in, as if attempting to find a way through the wall. We grant these ludicrous, weak, hog-tied, sack-race, legs a degree of determination, but note their apparent stupidity. The term sneetch-brained comes to mind. But if you are Han Solo you want to know that even a lobotomized Chewie (2) would keep on going, like a headless energizer rabbit, determined to mine his way if he has to, out of this or any other predicament.

Nearby, a structural pillar is punctuated at the floor with an orange, circular crocheted ruff about one foot high and three feet in diameter. As with other works, it plays a pun on space and placement: a capital at the bottom of a column. A blue and orange flowered housedress filled with concrete follows suit as the negative space of the dress becomes the sculpture.  This lady in a housedress, entitled Loaded,  seems to have the past overflowing from her
pockets. She is present-poor and has a needy look in her staid pose. Her habits of thought and motion are her Medusa. In the center of the room, a  large slime-green overstuffed form, vaguely frog-like in shape, seems to be high-centered or beached and invites a lethargic collapse.

Opening night, people can’t leave the superballs alone. They bounce everywhere in the room and gather in eddies where the floor is cracked or slightly sunken. A few hide up under the flounce of Ripple.  The scattered look of the large lofty gallery has the appearance of a castle dining hall after a night of madness. This is a fanciful description, but the polymorphous repose of the work suggests it. The rotund Slouch  is propped against the back wall like a debauched king. Some are tempted to lounge on or with it, or to to make finger spirals in the plush viscose fur of Green Pad. It is a beguiling atmosphere in which amused participation is an appropriate response for audience and artist alike.


And what about this feeling of the marionette theatre gone animate after midnight? You enter the room and sense that all movement has just come to rest. Perhaps one superball stirs in a tiny spiral just beyond your awareness. You find yourself speaking to someone who claims they’ve just been out for a walk, but what’s this goose down on their sweater? You become suspicious that they haven’t been out for a walk at all. More likely, you deduct, they’ve been stuffing feathers into this big, fat, velvety, moss green, mildly psychedelic, hindu, frog thing. How readily your thoughts swarm upon this new object. You imagine nightshade grows around its’ pond. When you whisper the word  nightshade  it echos punch bowl, lean to, zoot suit, drag strip; and like the list in song which compiles the ways in which the devil dresses the world in true love, you notice that everything is an analog of everything else.

Listing just applies. Just as the devil’s list from True Love Pt. 2  (3) could be expanded to include hot house, widow, wishbone and pass key, you could also add a nail, a rose leaf and the crack in the wood from Virginia Woolf’s short story,  A Mark on the Wall, in which the protagonist wants to “sink deeper and deeper, away from the surface, with its hard separate facts” and discovers that her century spanning reveries occur on the back of a snail. Along the way she catalogs a list of lost objects: three pale blue canisters of book binding tools, bird cages, iron hoops, steel skates, a queen anne coal-shuttle, a bagatelle board, a hand organ, etc. She feels that to be human is to be overwhelmed by details and she seeks a nirvana where one object is as good as another for expressing the human predicament because all objects are related and lead back to the same ground of meaning. But she also knows that another way out might be to pass through all objects as portals to a simulated nirvana built on the activity of reverie. Since the state of innocence before immersion in the world of objects and appearances is unatainable, the opposite tactic is applied: expand every detail to the scale of the whole universe. Like Emily Dickinson, if you can’t go to heaven at last, go every day. It is even appropriate, in the context of Elizabeth McGrath’s work, to compare Woolf’s reveries to those of Jim Woodring’s Frank, (4) who is always in the mood to become a snail, or a candle, or a staircase or anything else his gaze falls upon. For Frank, as for Baudelaire, the beautiful is always strange and as Dave Hickey has pointed out “strangely familiar.”(5) This familiarity is strange the way being able to breath is profound.


The tasty and luxurious playfulness that is a primary attribute of Elizabeth McGrath’s work is echoed in the materials themselves: pink Egyptian cotton terry, Green viscose fur, white silk velvet, hercura yellow mesergown milk, truffula tufting, blue silk embroidery floss, a found old red velvet comforter with all its buttons cut off, etc. This rich textural humus forms one leg of a tripartate working method built around form, process and as already stated, materials. McGrath’s way is to not let one aspect dominate the others. She works improvisationally, letting the nuances and rythyms of repetitive processes performed upon preferred materials (embodiments of delight) create form. The three members of this trinity wed themselves to meaning in an almost ceremonial grace. The artist herself is barely a participant. She may orchestrate or animate, but does not dictate. Idea is present at this wedding as well, but does not pontificate either. If it did it would be politely asked to leave. In this ceremony, idea keeps quiet, standing vaguely at attention with a velvet pillow perched upon its palms, waiting to present the ring. At the right moment (a moment which occurs after the artist’s work is done I suspect) idea comes forward, presents its tiny crystal, and is gone.  


McGrath cites the poetry of surrealism, the truth to materials of the minimalists and the trust of process which was a trade mark of the post minimalists as the seed ground of her work. Louise Bourgeoise and Eva Hesse are known influences. Hesse’s  “...transformation as the observable logic of the work” (6) is a rule of thumb in understanding Elizabeth’s elliptical approach to doing things. It is a very portable rule. You can carry it in the palm of your hand.


McGrath’s work has surrealist roots but also possesses a weirdness that won’t align with any manifesto-ed movement.  This weirdness, or affection for the odd,  is an expression of the comfort the artist has with her self and her method of working. It amounts to a trust in her own intuition and decision making processes and stems from her experience in earlier years when the product of her work could be said to be a refinement of the method itself.
A 1992 piece, Predicament,  is a case in point.  A bulbous stele of laminated woods twenty inches in diameter and four feet tall, this piece marked a turning point in McGrath’s understanding of her own approach to materials and processes. Perhaps she sought, not consciously of course, to temper the seriousness of her various modernist influences with a playfulness more akin to the likes of Woodring, Dr. Suess, Jan Svankmajer, even Edward
Gorey. In fact, it is Gorey’s Doubtful Guest  (7) who exhibits the will to make an obstacle of himself and figures to embody the energy of McGrath’s Predicament  at mid-production prior to the moment when the artist, frustrated by the gravity of the object, sought to physically drain its’ totemic presence of earnestness by drilling holes in it. However, after this voracious act of perforation, the obstinate object remained in the studio unresolved. The artist’s next move was to fill the holes with bondo which dried to that shade of pink associated with bandaids and thus unintentionally rendered the work ridiculous (ironically, another chartacteristic of Gorey’s guest). The wild, evolutionary arc of this piece from the serious to the absurd taught McGrath what was to become her main method of working in the studio: gather desirable materials, spend time with them, and see what happens.


1. From a conversation with the artist, February, 1996.

2. Han Solo and Chewie are characters from George Lucas’ Star Wars movies.

3. John X. Doe and Exene Cerveka.”True Love Pt. 2” from the 1983 X album, More Fun In The New World.

4. Jim Woodring’s Frank appears in his comic book series Jim,  published by Fantagraphics Books, Inc. Seattle, Washington.

5. Dave Hickey. The Invisible Dragon  (Art Issues Press, Los Angeles, 1993),  p. 18.

6. Rosalind Krauss. Passages In Modern Sculpture (MIT Press, Cambridge, Massacuusettes, London, 1977),  p. 272.

7. Edward Gorey. Amphigorey  (G.P. Putnam Sons, New York, 1972).

Copyright Hills Snyder, 1996 / appeared in Elizabeth McGrath, Installations, Eugene Binder Gallery, Long Island  City,  New York, 1997.


< < < < B A C K