Visual Art

The Artist, the Princess, the Wolf

Mandy Greer's Fairy Tale

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Joel Sanders
MANDY GREER Tales of a thousand stitches.
Mandy Greer Priceless Works Gallery

619 N 35th St, 349-9943

Through April 25.

Mandy Greer's current installation, The Wolf Prince and the Parrot Princess, is both fairy tale and meditation on fairy tales: a love story fully aware of how atypical it is. (If this story were written, it would be by A. S. Byatt.) This is not easy Disney-style love, but the more gruesome and hungry kind you find in unsanitized Grimm stories: "When I was young," the artist writes, "I never dreamed of a Prince on a White Horse to come sweep me away, but a Wolf Prince to chase me across the snow, tear me to pieces, and devour me."

The protagonists here are a fine and mismatched pair assembled out of fabric, feathers, and thousands of meticulous stitches: a handsome wolf, mounted like a trophy against copious dun-colored drapery, all shaggy jowls and pricked ears and yards and yards of crocheted and jeweled blood lolling out of his damask-tongued mouth; and the parrot princess, mounted against a field of chinoiserie on a knitted and sequined branch, with her pert, inquisitive head poking dearly out of a tartan ruffled collar.

There is also a vast, pristine topography suggested by an enormous chandelier of white pompoms, clustered and draped and spectacular, hung over a white braided rag rug. This is the snow of the artist's fantasy, and its bridal purity seems to call out for the blood that drips from the wolf's mouth. These three works triangulate in interesting, unexpected, but absolutely logical ways, although they are installed in a way I can't quite parse--instead of the wolf and the parrot separated by the field of snow, the princess is set off to the side, perhaps a little longingly.

In the last year or so, Greer's sculptures have moved from inhabiting vague although vivid fantastical realms to this more structured world of fairy tales of the artist's own invention. Where before there were tiers of animals--with intricately jeweled bottoms and rosy rectums--clustered for a reason not discernible around a single point, or a flamingo-like structure cantilevered off a wall, now there is a narrative, like this one, and like the performance work Greer debuted last summer at Thread's Fashion Is Art, a silent-film-style work about a bear that discovers it's actually a bird (with gorgeous costumes, as you might expect).

Greer's work never lacked narrative, which is to say that its absence didn't detract one whit from the work's power or theatricality, but the addition of narrative has had an interesting effect: The story abstracts the animals, turning them into archetypes. This, of course, is a paradox, because Greer is hardly trafficking in banalities (the tale she imagines is rather stunningly honest about appetites and cruelty and devotion), but it is a paradox that her work is quite comfortable with: the atypical archetype. It is only one in a series of contrasts that animate her work: between homeliness and glitz, love and violence, the decorative and the meaningful.

Greer's installations avoid the saccharine, although she freely makes use of saccharine elements. There's a toughness that sidesteps the implications of prettiness, sequins, ruffles, sewing, love. In an interview a few years ago, I asked Greer about the tension between the femininity of sewing and the obvious masculine elements in her work--such as a horse, from that era, with enormous lace testicles--and she said, "The way I sew is not really feminine. I joke around that I sew like a bachelor, like I'm sewing a button on. I sew like a man." The sewing, in other words, is not marshaled toward an act of love, as it is assumed to be in "women's work." In a pair of Greer's Victorian-ish confections off to the side of the main installation--they look like urns decked out for mourning--the balance tips more to morbid, a kind of superhuman effort applied to the gloomy rather than the pretty.

Greer's two-dimensional works shown here are less convincing: fabric stretched over frames in heraldic and decorative shapes, each surrounded by a ruffle, and with a collage assembled on it, with printed silhouettes of parrots, wolves, and other more or less relevant shapes. These lose the specificity of the tale, are too emblematic--they fail in roughly the same way that some of Matthew Barney's sculptures fail relative to his spectaculars: They feel like souvenirs. Never mind: The power of the three main sculptures carries the show.

 

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