Regen Projects | Los Angeles
September 16 – October 29, 2011
Originally published in ArtUS 32
The latest dispatch from Andrea Zittel’s A–Z West fills both galleries at Regen Projects with a phalanx of her famous handmade personal uniforms, two wallpaper designs from a recent series titled “Wallsprawl,” four paintings from a series of billboard prototypes, and a large model, “Lay of My Land,” of her Joshua Tree home-and-studio compound. The sculpture, an unpainted plaster landscape arranged over steel base sections, depicts the land parcels that make up A–Z West’s 35 acres—the “seemingly endless desert,” as Zittel puts it in an artist’s statement written for the show, carved into segments following the grid system conceived by Thomas Jefferson for efficient management of American Territory. “Lay of My Land” is born of her unease about the desert’s invasion by exurban sprawl, a sentiment stemming in part from childhood years spent in the region she returned to in 1999 after living in New York. But it follows as well in a long tradition of angst among American intellectuals and artists about the industrializing of the country’s wilderness lands. The “machine in the garden,” critic Leo Marx termed this theme in the 1960s, identifying its centrality to a host of American writers, from Thoreau—who, with his Walden outpost and ideas about nature, consumerism, and self-sufficiency, might be Zittel’s most obvious precursor—to Hawthorne, Twain, Frost, and, not least, to Jefferson himself, who fretted about the fate of his beloved pastoral Virginia.
That Zittel’s work revolves around an explicit philosophy of life and art that, while not rigid, exerts a stable, coherent, central force on everything she makes, differentiates her from many of her contemporaries. A series of paintings from 2006, “These Things I Know for Sure,” articulates some of its principles: “What makes us feel liberated is not total freedom, but rather living in a set of limitations that we have created and prescribed for ourselves” (#10); and “What you own, owns you” (#15). The self-possessed, sensible tone of these statements characterizes her art in general; even her ongoing, 20-year-long uniform project, in which she crafts one custom outfit per season, wearing it day in and day out, is as much an exercise in surefootedness as in limiting options and reducing reliance on store-bought clothes. Though conceived, often, as solutions for problems, as social critiques, her creations don’t shout their messages, but seem to exist as patient examples. Circling “Lay of My Land” (all work 2011), for instance, you are struck not by the concept of segregated land parcels, but simply by its detailed, quite beautiful surface, covered with individually sculpted rocks. Its whiteness and the rawness of its metal supports give it more than anything a ghostly, floating presence. The wallpaper pieces, meanwhile, made from aerial photographs of a shopping center (“Wallsprawl #6”) and an airfield (“Wallsprawl #4”), tiled and rotated to look from afar like spidery filigree, are born from Zittel’s concerns about human encroachment into nature, a process she likens to a “parasitic or viral expansion.” Perhaps she means for them to feel more sinister than they do, but one experiences them primarily as fascinating patterns.
While “Lay of My Land” and the wallpaper works are visually seductive, the show’s two other components—the four “Prototypes For Billboards A–Z West” paintings and the gallery of uniforms (including examples from the ongoing “A–Z Fiber Form Uniforms,” “A–Z Personal Smocks,” and “A–Z Single Strand Uniforms” series begun in 1994)—are its highlights. Displayed on a neat regiment of mannequins, the selection of 40-odd outfits—hand-felted tops, crocheted sweaters, dresses made from single fabric pieces—dazzle in their variety of form, texture, and technique. Knitting and crocheting, in which a limited number of strands, through a limited set of repeated gestures, can be made into infinitely varied garments, are, for Zittel, meaningful actions; even beyond her uniforms, stitch patterns show up in her work as frequent motifs. Their echo appears in the four billboard prototypes—collectively subtitled, for the show, “Bodies in Space with Objects”—that borrow imagery from Constructivist propaganda and depict maze-like designs superimposed over desert landscapes. The paintings are portraits of sorts: in three of them, a female figure, her face cropped out of frame, her skin and the desert floor both represented by areas of unpainted plywood, holds the maze form in her hands—the artist and her plans, or else a person introducing into the organic desert a structure born of her mind, a thing shaped by geometry, by equations, which is the distinguishing feature of human habitat. The paintings link the artist with the human march that she protests against. Touched with melancholy as well as hope, they designate ideas yet to be realized.