Exhibition Reviews | Visual Arts

In Anna Laurie Mackay’s Work Harmony Simplifies Complexity

Anna Laurie Mackay, “Knot,” 2020, letter press, tissue paper, 19.5 x 19.5 in.

There’s an old saying among artists, and there can be no doubt whose boast it is, that painters make pictures of things, while sculptors make things. That distinction may come to mind while contemplating the works of Anna Laurie Mackay, currently on view as part of Interwoven, a three-person show in the main gallery at Modern West. This is because while her works are often literally interwoven — in fact, the only truly woven works in Interwoven — none of them is literally a picture of something else. No drawing, no painting. Maybe a little modeling, but more conceptional than illustrative. These recent works are abstract, physical constructions, and so like sculpture. Elsewhere, in previous works still at the gallery, proof can be found that Mackay works as well with natural images: “Knot,” for example, features two overlapping circles, each centered on a copse of trees standing in a field. In fact, the two pictures are mirror images that overlap to produce a Venn diagram, while the paper in the overlapping, lens-shaped area, is cut and woven back together as if it thereby held the two images together, much as a mirror can be thought to hold both the original subject and its reflection.

Anna Laurie Mackay, “Draped Lake,” 2022, mixed media, 35 x 25 in.

It’s a sign of the times that the same technique — weaving — that may be dismissed as a craft when employed in useful or decorative objects becomes “mixed media” or “assemblage” when presented for pure contemplation. This old prejudice against function is an international and historical minority position, beginning in the European Renaissance and overdue for change. The optical characteristics of “Draped Lake,” in which broad, dark stripes that ought to dominate the pattern surrender to thinner, lighter ones that, however, run vertically and for longer distances — thereby producing an overall dynamic balance — is as valid an aesthetic lesson as any in art. Anyone who doubts this should try rotating the piece a quarter turn to see the chaos that results. (Please check with the staff first.)

The lakes in Interwoven are both more abstract and geometric than Mackay’s earlier works. In “Lake Interrupted,” a vertical division is made between upper and lower areas: a blue-gray that might stand for sky and a red-brown that suggests lake water. This pattern is further divided horizontally into thirds, of which the outer two are identical and undistinguished, while the middle one has been slashed horizontally into something like 75 narrow stripes that continue to connect the other two. These have been moved closer together, so the stripes sag and twist in ways that reflect their new, comparative freedom. It’s not an image that makes physical sense; how could you have half a lake? But what if a substantial part of any coherent body suddenly decided to think for itself? Isn’t there an inherent conflict between individual autonomy and overall, or group goals?

Anna Laurie Mackay, “Lake Interrupted,” 2021, mixed media paper, 23 x 31 in.

It could be argued that Mackay has diagrammed one of the great dilemmas of our time: the 20th-century search for individual rights may have led to a society, taken as a whole, that is “interrupted,” lacking cohesion and unable to find a way forward. But that’s only one example of how her visual metaphor could be read. In “Lake Variation,” diaphanous, rectangular shapes create forms that seem to float before and behind each other and, because they are translucent, can be seen simultaneously. One thing, however real or “true,” doesn’t necessarily deny another. These objects, whether they stand for something besides themselves or only represent their autonomous selves, show how harmony simplifies complexity.

Anna Laurie Mackay, “Lake Variations,” 2020, mixed media on silk tissue paper, 22.5 x 16.5 in.

Anna Laurie Mackay demonstrates principles that enter her works effortlessly, products of the precise and demanding labor her art requires. Gazing at a number of these patterns, it becomes apparent that round shapes emerge repeatedly from formations of squares. It’s a neurological mystery how such things take place, but one almost too easily accepted, just as the fragility of the tissue paper she uses makes a largely unconscious impression on the viewer. On first viewing, it is this fragility, and the lovely, delicate colored veils that makes an impression. But over time spent with them, it is the durability of the materials and ideas she evokes with them that lasts.



Interwoven: Jim Jacobs, Kiki Gaffney & Anna Laurie MackayModern West Fine Art, Salt Lake City, through Nov. 4

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