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The Weight of the World in Folds

by Kate Hackman, Review, February 2004, pg. 59

Marcie Miller Gross: Recent Work
Joseph Nease Gallery
7 November - 13 December 2003


One could easily discuss Marcie Miller Gross' sculptures of crisply folded and stacked towels as deconstructions of the modernist grid, undermining the presumably non-referential linearity of the flat canvas by reiterating its geometries in the form of utilitarian materials bearing a history of use. Or one could speak of them as a feminization of Minimalism, specifically - similar to a Donald Judd or Carl Andre, say, in their intensely physical, near architectural, unit driven manner of inhabiting the gallery space to produce a spatial presence; engaging our bodily senses, by replacing hard edges with pliancy, industrial forms with tactile ones, anonymity with specificity. As such, one could place them in an art historical lineage with the work of Eva Hesse, Lynda Benglis, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Mona Hatoum........

One could. Or one might write about the actual effects they produce and the stories they compel us to imagine.

Part of the success of Marcie Miller Gross' work may be that it invites the projection of personal associations. While this can be said of many paintings and photographs of a figurative nature, which imply some ambiguous narrative to be completed in the mind of the viewer, the narrative associations evoked by her work are inherent to their material properties, to what is actually there. Variations in color, whether faint stains on white towels or subtle differences in shades of blue determined perhaps by the number of washings each has endured, evince thousands of bodies touched, cleaned wiped, dried, veiled, or comforted by these cloths - each a story as vivid as we choose to envision it. The bulk of a group of them together is equally evocative; one imagines hospital wards, military camps, psychiatric institutions, rest homes, nurseries.

Gross' installations of these materials often feel less like manipulations or reinventions than revelatory exposures, guided rather than driven or forced into position. The best of them we feel almost as if naturally occurring, as if serendipitous miracles of the everyday, discovered, preserved and presented - placed on a shelf = for our contemplation. She does not disguise or reinvent these materials, but rather orders them into a sort of resting state that exemplifies and aspect or aspects of their essential nature. At the same time, we can consciously discern their intelligence, the metaphors they speak even while drawing us in with their intense physicality.

Gross' most recent show at Joseph Nease offered a refinement, a further distillation of the ideas and processes with which she has been working for the last few years. In Compress, blond wood shelves seem to rest upon the short, staggered stacks of folded blue towels placed below them, as if the towels were supporting the shelves rather than vice verse. Yielding a visceral sense of density, indeed compression, forced by weighty burden, this dynamic also suggests the strength achieved through collective action. The stronger Gravity -- stronger because simpler, more direct, less self-conscious in its artfulness - comprises two wider stacks of white towels placed on a wood shelf slightly shorter than they, such that their far edges fan downward, exemplifying both the rigidity to which their shelf-bound mass conforms, and the loose, fluttering freedom they are allowed without it. Pressed up against the wall, the backs of the towels also slope slightly upward, adapting to their imposed spatial limitations yet with their tips spreading out like wings. The effect is a beautiful contrast between two sorts of order -- one cultivated by human hands, the other informed by the laws of gravity - and a subtle evocation of our own mortality, as the earth pulls the edges of these towels - surrogates for our own bodies - toward it.

Gravity gracefully occupied one wall of Nease's second gallery, sharing the room with three other pieces, which together produced a sense of dexterous choreography, a holistic composition of singular gestures. And it was in this room where one was struck by the profound spiritual dimensions of Gross' work, which seem to have been gaining force over the last few years, conveyed perhaps with greatest potency in her Mass in the Charlotte Street Fund Award exhibition at Johnson County Community College in late 2002. In that piece, and here, with Axis, the intensity of blue produced by hundreds of flatly piled towels produced a level of saturation that called to mind the stained glass windows of the Chartres Cathedral - and achieved not dissimilar effects. One also thought of "International Klein Blue", thee color Yves Klein went so far as to claim for his own, valuing it for what he believed were its spiritual powers. Pressed into a corner and soaring to the ceiling of the gallery, the aptly titled Axis seemed a sort of touchstone, a starting point, a pillar of faith for the secular world. If we indeed interpret these towels as human surrogates, Axis signified humanity at its truest and purest. It also evoked the ocean, and the sky; at point at which everything is connected, from which life emerges.

If Axis enacted return to the core of our beings, Release seemed an emblem of hope and aspiration. Piled impossibly high on a low, narrow shelf, this tower of folded white towels brought to mind Brancusi's columns, gesturing skyward and emitting an aural glow. Each unit contingent upon the ones beneath it for balance, support, and elevation, the piece suggested the history upon which the present relies, and the future it plays a role in determining. At the same time, its great height evoked a sense of infinite possibility and expectation, unbound by logic and unlimited by precedent.

In relation to the apparent spiritual dimensions of these other works, Density, the fourth piece in the room, seemed more earthbound in its associations. Making use of a corner niche of the gallery, the piece included ten columns of white towels folded and evenly stacked on a shelf. Neatly aligned, tightly packed, and pressed into the corner as if huddling together, the mass suggested a consolidated force of bodies, like an army of soldiers, their individual wills relinquished to the overriding ambition of the collective whole.

Thus in this one room, through spare, succinct formal explorations of nothing more than used surgical towels and several pieces of blond wood, Gross managed to create a highly contemplative space with the power to physically, emotionally, and intellectually impact the viewer, perhaps to actually alter the tempo of our pulse, the patterns of our breathing. While certainly the impact of the work hinges upon the viewer's openness to it, Gross adroitly taps a point where form becomes content, where there is no longer a separation between what our bodies sense and what our minds deduce.

There is another story told by this work as well, and that is about the relationship between an artist and a gallery. It is equally a story about stacking and building, about balance and support, about history and faith. It could be written as a long story with many threads and subplots, but I will make it short.

Launched in 1998, Joseph Nease Gallery hosted its first solo show of Marcie Miller Gross' work in 1999. At that point, she was creating sculptures of brown paper bags and soil from her family's farm, evincing the earth's strata at the same time as referencing patterns of domestic ritual and the cumulative effects of human consumption. A few years later, she began working with towels, first showing a single floor piece at the gallery of mud-soaked cloths of varied sizes, later of bright beach towels folded into one another to form a tight column. Then another solo show at Nease that opened just before 9/11, its long pew-like benches piled with white towels seeming to anticipate the rituals of mourning and healing that tragedy would bring. A year later the Charlotte Street Fund Award exhibition and, in another year, this latest showing.

Fundamental to this story is the role a gallery plays in supporting the evolution of an artist's career. Designed to allow for the exhibition of installation-scale work, and privileging challenging work over the readily saleable, Joseph Nease Gallery has offered Gross, and other local artists of similar ambition, an intelligent, dedicated space in which to exhibit their work with regularity. Over the course of Gross' three solo exhibitions, augmented by inclusion in annual group exhibitions at Nease as well as outside showings, one has born witness to an increasing level of confidence and accomplishment. Evident as well, particularly with this show, was the artist's intimate knowledge of the gallery space itself, developed over the last five years and used to advantage.

Over these years, Joseph Nease has been the commercial gallery in Kansas City most consistently presenting strong solo shows by promising and established local artists - nurturing the careers of younger, emerging artists and allowing mid-career artists to experiment and gain meaningful feedback as they produce new bodies of work. It is critical that Kansas City support spaces of this ilk, which are essential to the sustained development of individual artists and serve as cornerstones for the community of artists working in Kansas City. With Joseph Nease Gallery now closed for what one hopes will indeed be only a two-year hiatus, a void is felt.