Divine Obsessions

Recent pieces by art star Judy Pfaff are on display at Robischon Gallery.

Though all of the Pfaffs in the Robischon show have some connection to her mansion, "Reverend M. J. Divine" refers directly to it - or, rather, to its former owner. (However, the painting does not in any way refer directly to the work and life of its namesake, unless the strong vertical bars are meant to suggest the prison bars the cult leader was jailed behind for a year in the late 1930s on the trumped-up charge of disturbing the peace.) The drawing -- done in watercolor, encaustic, oil stick and doilies on Japanese paper -- is mostly orange, with black vertical bars that look like the posts of an old cast-iron fence.

The doilies, which are circular and relentlessly even and symmetrical, are reminiscent of mandalas or even spirographs, both of which are favorite forms of Pfaff's. It's surprising that it took her so long to use them in her work. This is especially true considering how useful doilies are in making points about women and their changing roles in society. Pfaff, after all, isn't using the doilies to serve teacakes, but as collage elements.

The association of her new old house with Father Divine is just one of the autobiographical subjects Pfaff addresses in her drawings at Robischon. Others include the recent death of her grandmother, as in "Jesse Mabel," an oil stick and watercolor on Hosho paper, and of Holly Solomon, who is memorialized in "Miss Dworkin," an ink, oil-stick, encaustic and doily on Japanese paper. Solomon was the art dealer who gave Pfaff her first important commercial break by presenting the artist's inaugural Gotham solo, in 1979. But that was four years after her Big Apple debut in the 1975 Whitney Biennial. And the rest is art history.

"Reverend M. J. Divine," by Judy Pfaff, mixed media on 
"Reverend M. J. Divine," by Judy Pfaff, mixed media on paper.
"Messers. Rossman & McKinstry," by Judy Pfaff, 
ledger pages on paper.
"Messers. Rossman & McKinstry," by Judy Pfaff, ledger pages on paper.


Through June 21
Robischon Galley, 1740 Wazee Street

Several drawings in this show have whimsical titles, such as "Frog n' Toad" or "Needle n' Pin," which are autobiographical themselves, since they are Cockney expressions that recall Pfaff's early childhood as an East Ender in London. Her Victorian mansion, the leitmotif in the background of all the drawings, also conjures references to London, since the style, though popular around the world, is named for Britain's Queen Victoria.

One piece that isn't very self-referential -- except for the London-Victorian connection -- is the monumental "Messers. Rossman & McKinstry," done in oil stick on ledger paper mounted on paper. Pfaff found boxes of nineteenth century ledger pages that had been carefully folded accordion style and mounted them in a grid on the horizontal sheet of paper. The regime of order inherent in such an arrangement is broken both by the painted decorations with which the pages have been covered and by the random way the pages unfold from the force of gravity. Some are still tightly held in their folded form, while others are all but unfurled. As Doran pointed out, all of the Pfaffs in the show have an intimate connection to the artist's more famous installations, but "Messers. Rossman & McKinstry" really makes her point, as it literally spills out of its frame. This drawing is the only piece in the show that's displayed without a protective pane of glass, bringing it closer in feeling to installation art than the others.

Perhaps because Pfaff's chief claim to fame is installation art, the Robischon show has been handled as a single, coherent piece, though each drawing is available for purchase separately. Doran, who runs the gallery with her husband, Jim Robischon, blocked out the hanging -- as usual -- putting various Pfaff drawings together, and in some places arranging them in elaborate multi-part patterns that constitute ad hoc installations. The drawings are further linked by the compatible artist-made frames painted with stenciled patterns over metallic shades.

The Pfaff show, which is a month into its six-week run, inhabits the entire main part of Robischon -- something this gallery rarely does for one artist. But it's easy to see why Doran and Robischon did it in this case. First, the 22 captivating and impressive mixed-media drawings need a lot of physical and aesthetic room to be seen properly, and second, there's Pfaff's formidable reputation as one of the leaders in her generation of women artists. Taken together, these two factors make this show a major exhibit -- not just for the off-season, but for anytime at all.

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