at Goldman Kraft Gallery

On first viewing the work of Lena Liv, one has the uneasy feeling that some vast spiritual symbolic system is at work. That, at least, would account for her cryptic circles and triangles, old photographs and labyrinths. But as one spends more time with the works, constructed of handmade paper and other materials, the artist’s poetic purpose becomes clearer. While her subject matter is nothing if not ambitious–nature, the human, time, memory, imagination–Liv’s work is not intended to offer the viewer answers or explanations. If elements of it are symbolic, they symbolize processes rather than things. The viewer is invited to join Liv in a search, a search that does not have an end.

Liv is a 37-year-old Russian-Jewish emigre now living in Italy; this is her first one-person show in the U.S. (it remains on view through April 5), and it should not be missed.

Crucial to Liv’s success is her superb use of materials. The austere simplicity of her work, the way she constructs each piece out of only a few beautifully presented elements, deepens the mysterious aura that each element seems to evoke. (Interestingly, the one earlier work of hers I’ve seen, which is more cluttered with imagery, is less successful.) Particularly impressive is Liv’s use of handmade paper. In her hands it is shaped, made into three-dimensional reliefs, torn, reassembled; it has at once the organic qualities of a living thing and the machine-made qualities of a designed object. In virtually all the works, the paper’s texture, which is rough enough to suggest the wood fiber from which it was made, evokes a contemplation of the relationship between the forms of nature and those of the human imagination, a relationship suggested by other elements in the work as well.

For example, one of the untitled works in this show consists of a large disk of handmade paper with a tear along its vertical diameter. At the center, as if emerging from the tear, is an old photograph of two small children. The disk is mostly black, but a few small blue dots fleck its surface. There is also a single blue dot on the photograph. The dots seem to suggest stars in the night; but then what of the single dot on the photograph? And why are these “stars” not white but the color of the twilight sky? Through this sort of rejection of literal representation, these surprising displacements of color and location, Liv produces a vision of the interpenetration of the natural and the human, the metonymic and the metaphoric.

The old photo at the center surely evokes the passage of time; the children in it are now likely dead. Its placement at the tear, in the center, gives it great importance, as does the fact that it has the only human figures in the work. We do not know who the children were, nor does that seem important; the photo functions as a more general evocation of lost childhood and passage of time. But by placing the photo within her handmade paper, Liv also encourages us to compare the two: both grainy in texture, both mysteriously evocative, both combining a manufactured process (papermaking, photochemistry) with nature (the texture of wood, the images of children).

This piece is completed by a pair of blue children’s shoes placed on the floor, entirely detached physically from the object on the wall. As one’s eye moves from the photo to the actual shoes, which are very much like the ones worn by the girl in the picture, it becomes impossible to apprehend the photo as a mere aesthetic object, a pleasing (or not) element in a collage. Instead the viewer thinks of the human lives that the photo represents. The shoes project our feelings for the children out from the wall and into the space of the gallery, as they cause us to reflect on the fact that the children were three-dimensional beings. This move off the wall and into the room deepens the implications of the other elements of the work, making it clear that despite the displacements involved in the blue of the dots and the conversion of wood into paper, the nature references are intended to evoke actual reality, to project themselves into the space in which we live our lives. At the same time, the three-dimensional shoes help remind us of a central truth about art: that its ability to capture or represent the real world is severely limited; the shoes are no more the person than is the photo. Indeed, all Liv’s symbols seem to be presented in a way that acknowledges their limitations.

The use of photographs of children in many of the works at first reminded me of Christian Boltanski, whose amazing constructions–photos of children in metal boxes illuminated by dim yellow lights–also seek to transcend the merely aesthetic, to project their effects into the space of the viewer’s lived experience. But where Boltanski specifically creates nostalgia and refers to the inevitability of death, Liv’s emotional range is broader and less specifically focused. For example in Cavalino (“little horse”), handmade paper forms the shape of a horse’s torso, but with rough edges. It is colored blue, but streaked faintly with other colors, a bit like the sky; and rainbowlike concentric rings, which also evoke tree rings, fill its upper center. A horse made out of sky? On the wall is a photo of a little girl on an old hobby horse; the limitless freedom of childhood imagination offers one immediate explanation for the horse’s coloring. That the paper horse is far more wondrous than the one in the photograph suggests again the dual meaning that Liv finds in her old photos: while they evoke a physical reality that exists outside of any aesthetic object, they’re also by virtue of their literalness never adequate either to represent that reality or to reveal ultimate possibilities and meanings.

There’s more. Below the horse, but leaning against it and resting on the floor, is a tree branch, and on one part of the paper horse near the branch’s end are leaflike shadows. References to nature and childhood in both their literal and imaginative aspects are thus perfectly balanced in this work, and it is such balance that gives Liv’s work much of its expansive quality. We are encouraged to relate childhood play to the whole range of human imagination, to birth and death and the order of nature, and we are encouraged to think about such things without being told what to think.

These are the works of a searcher. At a time when many new artists go for a specific and identifiable “look” and stick with it–making works whose principal message seems to be not a reflection on the world but rather the simple and regrettably loud proclamation “Look at me”–Liv’s quiet mysticism is refreshing. But what is more significant is where that mysticism leads. Just as Liv’s three-dimensional objects (and relief effects on paper) project the works into the viewer’s lived experience, so her paradoxical juxtaposition of apparently disparate elements makes the experience of viewing one of her works a kind of process in itself, a journey.

In this regard it is surely no accident that images of labyrinths, sometimes drawn in outline and sometimes produced through lines raised in relief out of the paper, appear in many of Liv’s works. She has described the labyrinth as “a metaphor of the primordial solitude of all living beings, in their search after the essence of existence.” One of the pieces, titled Jericho, has a labyrinth made of relief lines on the brown paper; examining it, one discovers there is only one path to the center, but what one finds at the end of this path is a mystery–the Hebrew word for “Jericho,” no explanation offered. In Memory of Ariana, a large photo of a little girl is set into an iron box. The lines of a blue labyrinth are superimposed over her, and the ball she is holding is at the labyrinth’s center. Below, a drawer in the iron box has a similar, actual ball inside it. What does the ball mean? As in all the works, one never feels that the center of the labyrinth contains the “answer,” or that after arriving at the center there is nothing more to do. Instead the search leads to a question, and the question leads the viewer–this viewer at least–to another search: another of Liv’s works.

My favorite work in the show, one of two called Door, does not at first appear to involve the combining of disparate elements. Made entirely of reddish-brown paper (one thinks of wood, soil, rust), it has two panels and a small keyhole. Relief lines in the paper etch the rectangles of the door’s panels, and the color varies–the piece has the aging marks and old stains of a much-used wooden door. The keyhole, with its tiny opening, suggests the possibility of passage through, but the entire door is windowless and closed. In this apparently simple object Liv creates a paradoxical combination of several different, even opposite, possibilities–entry and denial, the machine-made and the organic. Door (as well as the actual door it evokes) has straight edges and right angles; it was made by human hands. But the rough, torn edges of Liv’s paper and its variable texture and color also suggest a very different order, that of nature. Here, as elsewhere in her work, the paper’s pulpy texture reminds us that paper comes from trees, ultimately from the earth. This may seem obvious, but when one views most other works of art on paper–whether a drawing by Durer or the work of a modern and accomplished paper artist like Dorothea Rockburne–it does not help at all to remember paper’s source. Liv’s use of paper to express other than what it is (labyrinths, horses) and her sense of it as an organic product achieve a remarkable fusion in this image of a wooden door. By retaining a record of paper’s origin both in the appearance she gives it and, in Door, in what she uses it to represent, Liv replaces the traditional–and imperial–attitude of the artist toward materials with a more flexible relationship of dialogue, achieving a beautifully precise balance between materiality and symbolism, intellect and emotion, civilization and the soil. By constructing her works in the form of questions rather than answers, paradoxes rather than conclusions, she shows an equally profound respect for the individual minds of her viewers, and for the ultimately ineffable secrets of existence.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.