(John Kennard photo)
Elemental forces are at play in the works of American artist Roni Horn, whose 30-year retrospective is on view through June 13 at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston.
In sculptures of glass, 24-carat gold and raw earth as well as in photographs, prints, drawings and books, Horn, 55, contemplates the transient — and transcendent — in nature.
Previously shown at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York and the Tate Modern in London, the exhibition presents an artist who is equal parts poet, metaphysician and quasi-naturalist.
In one gallery, light from Boston Harbor ignites a flame-like reflection between sandwiched sheets of gold. The momentary blaze evokes both molten earth and human intimacy. Titled “Paired Gold Mats, for Ross and Felix” (1994), the installation is a tribute to the artist Felix Gonzales -T orres and his partner Ross Laycock, who both died of AIDS.
Nearby, a narrow glass enclosure holds mounds of soil that resemble treeless, creviced mountains. It is in fact a live ant colony. The insects, like so many miners, ceaselessly tunnel their way through the soil.
Horn is herself a kind of miner, exploring primeval forces that are continually transforming the earth and its inhabitants. Her adopted home and open-air studio is Iceland, an island of steaming pools, volcanic peaks and boiling surfaces. “Iceland is always becoming,” writes Horn.
Soon after earning a BFA from the Rhode Island School of Design in 1975 and an MFA from Yale University in 1978, Horn gained art star status. Although she is an heir to ’70s movements in conceptual art and adopts Minimalism’s use of repetition, geometry and industrial materials, Horn also injects into her works a sensuousness that borders on the Baroque.
Straying still further from Minimalist asceticism, Horn forges objects that invite associations and add a human narrative — her own and the viewer’s.
The exhibition also suggests her kinship to early American Modernists, whose interest in finding the universal within the particulars of nature extends from the 19th-century American Transcendentalists. But Horn adds the element of time. Her works explore the dynamic nature of existence by building mutability into the work itself. Her objects of gold or glass change with the light. Works on paper render the continuity of change.
From one gallery to the next, the well-organized exhibition invites the viewer to explore relationships among works that accumulate power by association.
Horn often presents images in almost matching pairs. Rows of prints offer multiple, nearly identical views of a face or object. These meticulous studies investigate ceaseless change of state and identity within the same subject — a theme implied by the show’s title, “Roni Horn aka [also known as] Roni Horn.”
Illuminated by natural light from floor-to-ceiling windows in the ICA’s lobby is her captivating sculpture, “Pink Tons” (2008). The five-ton cube of glass has Horn’s trademark blend of structure — its geometry — and volcanic fluidity. While its sides have a powdery, matte finish, its glossy top offers a view inside, where waves of molten glass are seemingly frozen in motion. Random rainbows emerge on the sides of the cube as light penetrates its translucent mass.
One gallery shows photographic portraits of a young woman, her face, neck and shoulders dripping with water as she emerges from an outdoor hot spring. In some images, she is a solemn and impersonal goddess and in others, she shows a touch of warmth. Her shifts in persona are accompanied by changes in tone among the prints, which vary from monochromes and light tints to a deep Renaissance palette.
In another installation, Horn’s young niece mugs before the camera in two seemingly identical grids of 48 photographs taken over a period of time that varies from seconds to years. In the same gallery are selections from Horn’s “White Dickinson” series, in which lines from poet Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) are set in white cast plastic block letters on long aluminum rods. One could be a caption for the entire exhibition: “Nature is so sudden she makes us all antique—” (2006/7).
Close-ups of a taxidermist’s raptor collection show the head and neck of each bird from behind. Each has a simple cone-like shape that frames plumage in an astonishing variety of colors, textures and patterns, rendered with care in the large, lustrous prints. An amusing, striking riff on Horn’s theme of difference within sameness, the series also evokes the wonder cabinets of affluent late-Renaissance collectors, who crafted private showcases of found oddities in nature.
This connection is made more explicit in Horn’s installation, “Iceland Cabinet,” a small gallery that displays pages from her many books, including gorgeous photographs of Iceland’s landscapes and people. Maps of the island are overwritten with strings of words, including one with the phrase “accessible bliss.”
Horn’s large-scale drawings explode with energy, gathering force by being in close proximity. In each, interlocking sheets of paper create vaguely architectural or cartographic lines that are penciled over with words and scribbles. Across this pale expanse a ribbon of colored pigment whirls or gathers in folds like an origami flower.
Among Horn’s sculptures are two circular pools of glass. One is colorless like water and the other is black, its impenetrable surface suggesting a tar-like deposit from deep within the earth.
In “Still Water (The River Thames, for Example)” (1999), Horn examines London’s storied river close up in 15 large lithographs. In some, the water resembles flesh; in others, it has a wrinkled, viscous surface. Bobbing amid the waves are tiny white numerals that evoke prayer candles adrift on the sacred river of India, the Ganges. Each corresponds to footnotes, Horn’s quicksilver reveries as she gazes at water. Her preoccupations turn from listing words that mimic the sounds of water and reflecting on death to savoring the consoling power of Aretha Franklin singing “I Say a Little Prayer.”
What is so moving about this exhibition is Horn’s invitation to join her in using tools at hand — art, imagination and memory — to stake a claim in a world of ceaseless change.
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