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Review: SCAD’s “Undertone” offers overview of Orly Genger, known for wow-inducing knotted, crocheted sculptures

Lee and Lynn 2010
Rope, Paint and Steel
Photo: Leisa Rich
Lee and Lynn 2010 Rope, Paint and Steel Photo: Leisa Rich
Orly Genger: Lee and Lynn, 2010; rope, paint, steel.
(Photo by Leisa Rich)

Orly Genger battles millions of yards of lobster fishing rope into submission to create art that commands attention.

The Brooklyn-based artist learned to hand crochet in 2002 during a creative lull and quickly graduated from small, yarn-based experiments to large-scale works that audaciously transform the places they take over.

 Gengor's Red, Yellow and Blue.
Genger’s Red, Yellow and Blue.

The massive interactive installation Red, Yellow and Blue, perhaps her best-known work, undulated and snaked around Manhattan’s Madison Square Park in summer 2013. Composed of 1.4 million feet of hand-painted and knotted nautical rope from the Gulf of Maine Lobster Foundation, the piece transformed the flat landscape into a visceral experience, with isolated spaces for secret snuggling and other communal-friendly elements. This installation relied, as do many in her oeuvre, on saturated color and structural magnificence to inspire awe.

There is no color in Undertone, an exhibition of recent work at SCAD’s Gallery See though March 23. Primarily black, white and sepia, this rather somber show lacks the playful, inclusively social nature of other Genger exhibitions, but it packs an aesthetic punch, nonetheless. And it offers a cohesive overview — drawings, collages, a couple of smaller sculptural rope pieces and two of her monolithic constructions. SCAD Atlanta curator Alexandra Sachs’ wise inclusion of a variety of mediums clearly illustrates how the artist is envisioning space, scale and concept.

Untitled, 2008 Watercolor on lithograph Paper size: 30 x 44 inches Courtesy the artist
Orly Genger: Untitled, 2008, watercolor on lithograph paper.
Courtesy the artist.

The drawings and collages seem at first glance to be abstract gestures; upon closer inspection one discerns that she has employed superhero-style clenched fists and exaggerated forearms as her subject matter. In an untitled 2008 lithograph and watercolor piece, the human appendages are tightly stacked, suffocated, forcibly entwined human body parts.

Flushing, a 2007 ink and collage on paper, brought to mind the disposal methods of humans used in Auschwitz mass graves. The dip at the top of the compressed body parts recalled a sinkhole that developed as decomposition occurred. From this perspective, what might otherwise be humorous cartoons takes on gravity.

Flushing, 2007 Ink and collage on paper Paper size: 18 x 24 inches Courtesy the artist
Orly Genger: Flushing, 2007, ink and collage on paper.
Courtesy the artist.

The intertwined, layered ligaments of the two-dimensional works relate well to the two densely layered, knotted, monolithic constructions, Lee and Lynn. These 12-foot-high, free-standing pieces reference modernist Richard Serra’s masculine steel structures or Beverly Pepper’s faceted, clefted, pierced metal megasculptures in their heft and rigid geometry. They are like large headstones, standing sentinel.

Genger sees her work as a retort to the macho sculpture world. In a video presentation, she said she mimics the monumental geometric shapes but removes the slick, smooth surface common to large-scale metal sculptures, revealing what she calls the “guts” — her term for the organic, feminine act of handwork.

The organic character is noticeable in two small untitled works (subtitled Grey Rope Drip and Aluminum) from 2011. These aluminum-cast, painted sculptures are eloquent in their simplicity and sparse form. Genger brings that same simplicity to a jewelry line (not in the show) made in collaboration with jeweler Jaclyn Meyer.

Undertone is a great introduction to Genger’s work. The exhibition’s one drawback is that the large gallery space seems to dwarf the monoliths, significantly reducing their impact. A smaller gallery or more pieces would have dealt a much stronger punch.

Those hungry for more after seeing this bite-sized taste of this artist’s capabilities can visit a larger exhibition at SCAD Museum of Art in Savannah, which opens April 5.

Orly will participate in a panel discussion with Abrie Fouri and Ryan Brennan, moderated by Steve Aishman, at 6 p.m. February 18, followed by a reception.

To see images of Grey Rope Drip and Aluminum, Genger’s jewelry and examples of her monumental work, see our photo gallery.

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