Repulsively seductive, Petah Coyne’s surreal assemblage

Petah CoyneA surprise always, always, awaits me at museums. Anticipating the unknown is juicy! Quite often, it’s not a major exhibit that catches me by surprise so much as a single piece.  Like what happened yesterday at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

Turning left into a gallery, smack!  There it was.  A twisting, tangly conglomeration sprawled in the center of the room. Petah Coyne.

Petah Coyne 02Chicken wire, fabricated tree branches, artificial berries and flowers—and feathers, thorns, velvet, nylon thread, wire, hat pins—and taxidermy birds!  Everything intertwined, gooey with wax.  Spray-painted, mostly black with touches of maroon reds and purples.  The color of bruising?

Both seductive and repulsive, the work bulges with metaphor.  Of course, the title, “Dante’s Daphne,” gives it away.   A Daphne in distress, rising out of Greek myth, embodied within a grotesque garden of ornate decay.

The exhibit label quotes the artist as saying:  “I think the most interesting parts of my work are the intersections between order and chaos, accident and control.  I am shooting for perfection, but am willing to allow for imperfection.”

Petah Coyne 03The tactile physicality of her surreal assemblages suggest to me a moment mori. The materials, traced to everyday life, seem uncannily preserved yet deadened by the goo and paint. Perhaps the ordinary materials grab hold to mythically code our senses, gently expressing the peace of a sleeping beauty, awaiting transformation by kiss of a prince.

Curious about an “expert opinion,” I couldn’t help but browse the web, and found an elegant review of her New York show at MOMA show two years ago.  This work was one of many. Tom l. Freudenheim of the Wall Street Journal wrote an elegant review, “Everything that arises must converge. He’s a former art museum director, who served as assistant secretary for museums at the Smithsonian.

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Much of my time at MOMA, I busied myself “deconstructing” paintings of  modern abstraction.  I zoomed my camera to grab closeup sections of large-scale works.  My goal was capturing masterly fragments. I’ll talk more about that experience when I get my thoughts together.

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Coming next … visiting the Cantor Art Center at Stanford University.