Reflections on the life and work of Robert Irwin have been copious in the wake of his death last month. My favorite comes from Michael Govan, the director of LACMA, who shares a foundational lesson he learned during his decades-long relationship with the artist. “(A) work of art succeeds,” Govan writes, “when it challenges our perceptions to such a degree that it awakens us to reconsider our environment, and invests us with a greater potential to see.”
I had Govan’s words on replay as I walked around Marian Carow’s solo exhibit at the Hyde Park Art Center. Installed on the walls of the center’s second-floor hallway gallery, the exhibit comprises sixteen cardboard sculptures and a suite of playful collages, all standard paper size. While the collages illustrate Carow’s intuitive feel for shape and line and her ability to describe space with few elements, the sculptures are the stars of the show.
Modest in size—no larger than a couple of feet in any dimension—the sculptures manifest Carow’s strategy of combining improvisation with relentless curiosity to reveal the latent potential (both formal and conceptual) within a commonplace material that sustains our online economy. As she explores how that material behaves in response to manual manipulation, paint applications and changing light conditions, the artist transforms the ordinary into something mysterious and beautiful.
Carow first coats the raw cardboard of her sculptures with PVA, then applies layers of acrylic paint, sometimes mixed with sand or powdered marble. She restricts her colors to either white or shades of gray (charcoal, olive, violet, etc.). Her forms obliquely reference the urban and agricultural environments typical of the Midwest: peaked roofs, wooden porches, industrial vent caps, trestle bridges, weathered barns and corrugated metal grain silos.
The white sculptures are more analytical and tied to architecture. The connection is most obvious in those, such as “Untitled (20103),” where the cardboard, seams and structural elements are partially exposed.
The dark sculptures, in contrast, are sensual, subterranean, even otherworldly. “Untitled” from 2022 is encrusted with a silt-colored mix of acrylic and clotted sand granules. It could be an artifact from space that charred as it dropped through the atmosphere. “Untitled (12K)” projects from the wall like a fin or airplane wing fragment. Carow has layered dark gray over violet in the work so it glows like a radioactive ember. When one moves from the shaded to the illuminated side, a weird optical effect occurs where the piece appears to emit a brief, blue flash.
With each cut, twist, fold and layer of paint, Carow foregrounds the malleability of her chosen material—and, by extension, all materials. If you can salvage trash and make something interesting and valuable from it, then everything around us becomes infused with possibility. It’s a way of viewing the world that is active, expansive and generous, reconnecting us to the creativity and spontaneity of childhood, before categories and definitions harden.
A few days ago, I retrieved an Amazon delivery from my front walk. After removing the contents, I turned the box over a few times, noting the contrast between its rounded edges and angled flaps. I started to mentally deconstruct the object, trying to come up with an unusual shape that would require the fewest number of cuts. It was proof that Marion Carow had done her job, and done it well.
“Marian Carow: Salvages” is on view at Hyde Park Art Center, 5020 South Cornell through February 18, 2024.