Alice Mackler’s exhibition at Kerry Schuss—18 paintings, drawings, small ceramics, and collages—has garnered quite a bit of hard-earned critical acclaim, much like her previous shows. At eighty-two, this is her first solo exhibition; from Artforum to Time Out New York , among others, it’s been heralded as playful, subtle, and “unerring“. Mackler’s received praise for her colors, textures, and her imaginative perception of reality and the human condition. But there’s one thing that the reviews I’ve read won’t touch with a ten-foot pole: the collages.
Now, everything else at Kerry Schuss is well worth the esteem. Her ceramic sculptures continue to confuse the concept of womanhood with both phallic and ovular imagery; quite simply, many of her women look like penises.
Her eye-catching paintings show breasts in every possible form—an un-lofty reminder that women come in more shapes than one. Her pink-and-rainbow drawings serve a similar role, retaining such elements of intrigue as the joyful colors and curious gestural abstraction.
In my love for these works, I was all poised for almost unconditional respect until I saw the collages. Damn those collages for reminding me that nobody’s perfect. The three untitled collages were mediocre: just magazine clippings of girls with the same rainbow, dabbled backgrounds as Mackler’s drawings. They lack the transformations that mark her other works, which provide an alternate way of seeing or celebrating the female figure.
Now—don’t get me wrong—I don’t think that all art needs to have a meaning, as it were, or even a transformation. In fact, one of the things I like so much about Mackler’s other works is that, while they have an emotional impact and use loaded symbols, there’s no explicit “message”. However, without the curiosity and wonder that Mackler sparks in her near-abstractions, the collages fall flat.
The most valuable, existence-earning quality I could come up with was that, both in the collages’ colorful backgrounds and their physical placement, they serve as a foil for the drawings hung directly opposite them in the gallery. Putting these two sets—the collages and the drawings—into conversation with each other does yield some positive effects. Where the girls in the collages are commercially ideal but fairly boilerplate, the girls in the drawings are bizarre and lumpy, but bewitching. The collages show, by their images’ lack of worth, the value and paradoxical sublimity of Mackler’s distorted women. I just don’t know whether showing what boring women are like, in contrast to Mackler’s more interesting ones, is enough to justify the collages’ place with the rest of the work.
It’s not difficult to see why the collages have been critically overlooked. They undermine the show’s tightness, and stain Mackler’s recently discovered flawlessness. They lack her “highly individual sensibility” and her unique distortion of reality, and they do little to reframe the way we understand women. I wish I could just erase them from the show so that Mackler’s otherwise cohesive, distinctive aesthetic could remain intact.
Alice Mackler at Kerry Schuss is on view until July 26th. Yeah, tomorrow.