Objects, Italo Calvino observed, have a mysterious power. Drop a detailed description of an object into a wayward, boring story, and the narrative comes to life. “The moment an object appears,” he wrote in Six Memos for the Next Millennium, “it is charged with a special force and becomes like the pole of a magnetic field, a knot in the network of invisible relationships.” Among Calvino’s examples are the items Robinson Crusoe rescues from his wrecked ship, a fitting association for Liz Glynn’s debut at Paula Cooper, which featured papier-mâché sculptures based on historical objects that were found in shipwrecks or otherwise connected to seafaring. Unfortunately, in this young Los Angeles artist’s show, the reverse effect of Calvino’s hypothesis occurs: the stories behind the objects lend them some much-needed spice.
On entering the gallery, viewers encountered 122 small blue-and-white plates, all made from papier-mâché but convincingly simulating cracked and stained crockery. Arranged on forklift pallets lying on the floor, the plates, which are based on Ming Dynasty porcelain designs, were surrounded by other papier-mâché objects, including a battering ram, a broken marble figure, an anchor, several jugs, clothing, furniture and so on, making the gallery resemble a storage cabinet for a theater. The theatrical atmosphere pervaded the back room, where the shattered hull of a life-size boat made of wood was suspended in the air.
The smaller sculptures evince Glynn’s facility with her medium (the green “oxidation” on the battering ram is especially realistic), but they were difficult to parse, or, to be honest, to enjoy, until one perused the extended labels on the checklist, which provided the provenance for the objects Glynn has replicated. A purple tunic inside a wood storage box is inspired by one worn by Julius Caesar when Sicilian pirates captured him in 75 B.C. Realizing the potential goldmine they’d stumbled on when the hue of his robe gave away his patrician roots, the pirates demanded a ransom for the 25-year-old’s return. The unattributed label continued: “After the ransom was paid, Caesar raised a fleet, pursued and captured the pirates, and imprisoned them. He had them crucified on his own authority, as he had promised while in captivity—a promise the pirates had taken as a joke.”
Similar stories of high-seas banditry abound: a Ming bust was salvaged from a galleon that sank in 1511 while carrying a load of treasures looted during Portugal’s conquest of Siam. An oar rendered useless by bullet holes is a remnant of an 18th-century battle between pirates and a captain working for the Dutch East India Company.
The distinctly handmade quality of Glynn’s work, and its historical bent, bring to mind another artist who shows with Paula Cooper, Justin Matherly, who props roughly assembled replicas of ancient sculptures on hospital walkers. Glynn’s practice also has much in common with that of Valerie Hegarty, who creates mixed-medium versions of 19th-century American paintings and decorative objects that appear to be damaged by invasive natural elements, such as rainwater, or overrun with foliage. Unlike these artists, however, Glynn does little more than re-create the objects that interest her, which gives them an inert, proplike quality.
The subject of looting and smuggling is a rich one indeed, and there is much to explore. Glynn is clearly a facile, exceptionally talented object maker. Now she needs to figure out a way to bring her sculptures to life on their own terms, lest her objects, without the stories there to buoy them, remain submerged.