I’m rarely captivated by art outside of painting, which means I usually cherry-pick my way through a tour of New York City shows. A few memorable exceptions would be Terrence Koh’s kneeling crawl around a cone of salt a few years ago at Mary Boone, and the spectacle of Kara Walker’s Sugar Baby. More powerfully than either of those, Susie MacMurray’s work won me over immediately in her 2013 show at Danese Corey. Her work’s metaphoric power seems secondary to its formal originality. It’s conceptually anchored but its impact doesn’t depend on the meaning you extract from it. Most of her work looks unstrained and almost natural. In her current show at Danese Corey, Hinterland, what would have caused injury, in its original form, has been disarmed, and, in turn, is disarming, drawing you toward it rather than pushing you away, as it was originally meant to do: snakes, sniper shells, barbed wire, all become alluring, if only as objects of curiosity, but nearly as often because they’ve become beautiful in the new context she gives them. Her craving for simplicity and unity gives her innovative forms the feel of fresh archetypes, metaphors that attract interpretations rather than assert or contain a fixed meaning. Mythology has that quality, and she echoes a couple Greek tales in this show: Pandora and Medusa.
Medusa was a celibate disciple in the temple of Athena, but was lured into Poseidon’s bed and then punished for her infidelity, given a hairdo of serpents that petrified any man who looked upon her. Perseus beheaded her as a favor to all the men in her vicinity who still had a pulse. Susie MacMurray’s Medusa, though, takes it a step further. She’s headless as a dressmaker’s dummy, back from the grave and a lot more charming than when she dropped into it. MacMurray is doing a variation on the centerpiece of her last solo show, A Mixture of Frailties, where the gown was made of house cleaning gloves. Here, Medusa has upended her own punishment. At first glance, she seems aquatic, a cross between a mermaid and a squid, just the right look for a woman who fell for the god of the sea. Yet she’s still an upright land lover, as dry as MacMurray’s wit, her serpentine tresses now rooting her to the earth.
As well as inverting the anatomical placement of the snakes, MacMurray has clothed her in protective armor of copper chain mail—in fact, this metallic second skin is all you see. It’s a form-fitting second skin of glittering scales. She’s closer to a regenerated god than a woman who has lived through some of the worst hair days in history. As with MacMurray’s previous gown construction, where the inside-out cleaning gloves flowed like icing off the figure and outward onto the floor around her, the chain mail here writhes in all directions from around her feet. This armor sheathes even the subdued corona of serpents. Now she walks on them, or maybe with them, side-winding up behind you without a sound. Lop off Medusa’s head, and she grows snakes for toes. Strike her down, and apparently she will become more powerful than you can possibly imagine. Or at least a lot more intriguing when you spot her from across the room at a party.
Brood on the image and you think maybe her wig wasn’t punishment at all. Maybe she grew all that unstraightenable hair on her own, as her way of getting even. Maybe she went reptile to become the new archetype of passive-aggressive justice. Or, maybe the snakes, from the start, were a mind-trick, a misdirection, part of her misguided shame over having been victimized, and a defensive way of protecting herself from the gaze of others. It certainly worked. Granted, there was some collateral damage, a trail of hapless guys turned to stone.
Yet now she can’t live without all those curls. They grow out again from below, like suckers rising up from under a trimmed tree. She’s become her new defensive equipment: her chain mail. The woman has disappeared and so have the snakes; her metal cocoon is all that meets the eye. Instead of the serpents, you see only the slinky protective wrap uncoiling outward from below. The shape of snakes seeps into view, like smoke from under a closed door, but is there anything inside that armor? It’s almost touching now, if you see it all as self-defense, the snakes, the armor, all of it. All those tiny interlocking links knitted together by hand, fooling you into thinking the snakes are still there. The pathos of her wounded soul would be even more poignant if the work weren’t so powerful. Does that mean this Medusa’s beauty is all that stops you in your tracks now? So she’s a woman and has learned to fall back on her wardrobe to get looks? Is that her ultimate, ironic, defeat? But it is a victory. Everything phallic is now underfoot. And, give her credit: at the exhibit’s opening, she was turning heads without needing one of her own. It’s an image of a woman who has appropriated her abuse and punishment into a power she can control, and she may be sexy but she’s no fashion model. As MacMurray pointed out, with a grin, to a couple young fans at the show’s opening. “She’s a size 16.”
And so, round and round, it goes. The more you try to get to the heart of the matter, the more hints she offers up, without ever letting you pin her down. This is not unheard of in a woman. What’s true for Medusa herself is what makes MacMurray’s work as a whole so impressive: its enigmatic beauty exceeds whatever you can think about it, even as it inspires so much poetic resonance. None of the many ways to read her work deplete its aesthetic power. There’s no way to reduce these creations to something less than what they ultimately are: personally felt formal inventions. Her sensuous delight in her own craftsmanship with various materials give the work an immediate allure. There’s alchemy and humor in the underlying fact that what conveys the magic are such mundane materials: barbed wire, hooks, rubber gloves, wax, blocks of poured stone (like concrete).
Some have called her constructions and installations both beautiful and repulsive, or lovely and menacing. I don’t find them threatening or off-putting. In fact just the opposite: they are always seductive. Maybe there’s a hint of risk in that, as there is in being emotionally pulled toward something unfamiliar. That could be a definition of life, couldn’t it? You think: why do I have the urge to take home a passel of snakes? But the work speaks very softly. Her explosions of barbed wire reminded more than one person at the opening of a bouquet of forsythia. Her Orphan, little more than a shy, black gourd woven of metal wire and pierced by a bull nose ring, sits stunted and alone, longing to be tethered to someone.
What’s so distinctive about her work, for me, is that rueful, but smiling, tone. It isn’t strident or confrontational. You’re drawn toward it, and the challenge it presents doesn’t feel like an opposition or taunt, but an invitation into a fertile paradox. Pandora is a light box made of bullets—the grid of resin bullets are the box, the last item left when all the other evils have escaped. MacMurray pointed out for me that, in the original myth, hope was the only thing left in the box, but here the last hope is the defensive threat of violence, a final resort in a world of conflict. And yet these bullets are harmless, ordered, glowing from the inside, like ice. Medusa, at first glance, lights up some corner of your brain storing memories of designer gowns you’ve seen in pictures or at weddings, and yet, a few seconds later, you recognize the train of snakes, and then the copper links that form their scales and become the chain mail encasing the torso and legs. Eventually you learn that it weighs 500 pounds and took eight months to knit together by hand. But that first impression remains as the delivery system: the dazzling gown, even though you’ve learned about its quarter-ton of copper and three seasons of menial labor and all the heavy lifting and shipping charges it took to get it from the UK to Chelsea.
Hinterland seems to keep pointing toward a longing to transcend harm. In a predatory world, harmlessness is a rare and nearly impossible human attainment, and it ought to be the ideal. I think it’s a vision that radiates from everything MacMurray does. There’s an ethical imperative to do no harm within all those ostensibly menacing appearances. Her work is peaceable and self-effacing. She conjures imagery that, in other more overtly political hands, could easily be overwrought and tiresome. Instead, what she turns out is beguiling, irresistible, full of tristesse, and yet witty. Her Medusa isn’t monstrous, but shines with tenderness about the vulnerable, individual human heart in a violent world. Men and women both—we’re all potentially this Medusa. At one time or another, we all feel punished for having been fooled or used or violated. Some of us move on, a little stronger for it.