Although New York’s Lower East Side has a certain run-down quality, Allyson Vieira’s installation If I was a . . . but then again, no (1–18) (all works 2010), brought a rare sense of moving from an utterly of-the-moment neighbourhood into the type of ancient ruin absent from American history. Eighteen pillars cut from a single six-tonne block, and sized to act as stand-ins for the artist’s body, were tightly packed into the front space of Laurel Gitlen, forcing viewers to traverse gingerly between them, mindful of the works’ physical presence and weight. This intimate and individualized viewing experience allowed for a close-up view of the often luscious layers of material in each pillar: jagged edges of plaster, concrete and drywall, marked by the teeth of an oversize saw and power tools, stained with drips and studded, these objects are familiar in their domestic elements but no less imposing. Despite their ambiguous configuration and lack of narrative, these pillars are imbued with an almost ready-made history, with raw plaster easily evoking worn marble.
The exhibition’s title, ‘Ozymandias’, is the ancient Greek name for Ramesses II, the Egyptian pharaoh, but also shares a title with Percy Bysshe Shelley’s 1818 sonnet, which was inspired by the British Museum’s acquisition of a colossal statue of the pharaoh two years before. Whilst the work’s materiality alludes to minimalist monoliths, its cross-referencing of empires, cultures and ancient eras suggests a keen historicism subtle enough to avoid appearing like a neoclassicist homage.
Offsetting the formidable presence of the main installation, three smaller works in the second gallery granted some breathing room. Two tactile bas-reliefs, again in Vieira’s signature untreated plaster, are laboriously moulded by imprints of her hand. The forms of both long, sinewy fingers and hard-hitting fists add a more nuanced, yet no less physical, transformation of the blank-slate material. Together, the titles – Old (Not Without Variation) II and New (Not Completely Novel) II – nod to re-makes, as well as the contemporary impossibility of reading these sculptures independently of ancient connotations. As a fitting punctuation to the show, a baby octopus was tucked into a corner on top of a modest pedestal of drywall scraps. Plaster weights placed on its tank motioned to its potential for escape, but its shy nature belied its loaded title, Destroyer of Empire (2010). With this diminutive creature, Vieira gave her audience a deft allegory for the ways by which mythologies are made, from the conceivable violence of an animal to a past continually retold.