Life Forms

Catalogue essay by Therese Lichtenstein, In Khan Gallery, February 1995

"Life forms" – the most recent sculptures of Miriam Ancis – playfully explores feminine identity in its material, erotic and work-a-day transformations. The series comprises seven large-scale, organic forms made of pink encaustic on a steel frame, mohair and raw wool. Visual and tactile metaphors for birth and awakening pervade the entire series as the individual forms allude variously to specific body parts (Lips, Cervix), to simple, functional objects (Spool, Funnel), or to abstraction itself (Sphere, Curve, Curl). The primitivistic shapes of these sculptures are so difficult to fix, so nearly form-less that they seem to suggest motion of the physical and spiritual processes of becoming.

These richly complex and resonant explorations of femininity take this work far beyond an essentialist view of feminine identity as rooted solely in the body. Rather, in a Surrealist, Alice-in-Wonderland manner, encounters with imaginary forms of the spirit and surprisingly strange, sensual objects await the viewer. From the slightly raised surface of the saucer-shaped Cervix (1993), for example, rise vaporous will-o'-the-wisps of raw wool that grow and dissolve as they metamorphose into an unspecified mass of soft texture and pink light.

A sense of the uncontrollable associations and ambiguous connotations subconsciously triggered by "Life Forms" is evident in the alternating rough and soft surfaces of Lips (1994), a big freestanding smile that alludes simultaneously to human lips and labia. Ancis has used the conventional Surrealist devices of incongruity (as in Meret Oppenheim's Fur-lined Teacup from 1936), and gigantism (as in Claes Oldenburg's oversized and sexualized Pop burgers from the 1960s) to produce a work that is both compelling and repulsive. By joining two huge pairs of lips, Ancis has created an object that verges on abstraction – a comically grotesque optical illusion that makes us squirm.

Incongruously, their exaggerated scale gives Ancis's sculptures a curiously endearing tentativeness, like the clumsy grace of a newborn colt standing for the first time. This hesitancy has a joyful energy to it. Thus, in Curl, (1994), a tender eroticism is evoked by the lilt of a gauzy curve whose two tips move vaguely upward and toward each other without ever touching. Out of the soft, moist surface emerge thin strands of wool stretched across the surface like hair on beckoning skin. Ancis also reveals this intimate aspect in the ten charcoal drawings that accompany the sculptures. There, the black abstract shapes fluently join one another, like thin folds of skin or cells reproducing.

Union and separation are represented differently in Cure (1993) and Funnel (1994). Here the evocation is maternal: the wooly surface of Curve recalls a moist cocoon breaking open to permit the emergence of new life. Similarly, Funnel – open and wooly – offers an image of the birth canal and, at the same time, denotes the simple tools of everyday life. This combination of the maternal and the work-a-day is particularly present in Spool (1993), which suggests pregnancy and deliberately refers to the textile crafts traditionally associated in many cultures with women and the hearth. The airy strands of lightweight mohair delicately wind around the heavier and more roughly textured pink encaustic base creating a coiled, self-contained energy.

Through the metaphor of weaving, Ancis recalls the relationship between sculpture or craft object and the human body and the psychological process whereby female erotic and maternal desire and entwined. By enlisting multiple meanings, Ancis shows us the unpredictable and liberating transformations that await those prepared to assimilate shifting and overlapping gestalts of the subconscious mind.

Transitional Objects

Catalogue Essay for Miriam Ancis: Recent Sculpture and Drawings, April 9 – May 11, 1996, In Khan Gallery, by Maud Lavin

Freud watched a boy play with a reel attached to a string. Over and over the boy would cast the reel behind a curtain, saying "fort" (gone), and then pull it back with the string, saying jubilantly "da" (there) when it reappeared. As Freud wrote in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, the boy could endure his mother's comings and goings only passively, but when he substituted the string and reel for his mother he could enact mastery --- again and again.

The sculptor Miriam Ancis, too, has been exploring the ways in which toys provide a transition from the mother's body to the external world for a child. These recent sculptures and drawings build on Ancis's earlier work about pregnancy and birth. Loosely based on the form of an infant's rattle, Ancis's wall-hanging and fee-standing Rings act as a bridge between the viewer's own body and a world of visual and tactile metaphor. Constructed of encaustic and mohair, the Rings engage one at numerous levels of connotation – contemplative organic roundness, phallic forms, primitive jewelry. Ancis's various sculptural forms, though, do not invite mastery – except for the artist in the process of production. Instead, they provoke a range of meditative and associative responses in the viewer.

Formally, Ancis's cascading Spirals, again of burgundy-saturated encaustic, fascinate with their fluid, graceful coils blurred by a dusting of white wool. At the associative level, the viewer may wander through meditations on interrupted corkscrews, basic biological filaments or enlarged slinkies spilling down flight of stairs. And while can connote, but does not illustrate, a spinning top.

It would be too limiting to stop interpretation at the point of reference to children's toys, however psychologically complex their context may be. Rather, Ancis's work engages the viewer in manifold ways. Her Scale sculptures, for example, are rhythmic hangings of sensuous, solid, floating, musical, each Scale hovers between an image of abstract meditation and furry organicism, sharing a dialogue with issues of femininity and the body prevalent in more explicitly erotic contemporary art. The Scale sculptures, like much of Ancis's work, evoke the transcendental, offering a chorus of association spiritual and corporeal, each balancing but not obscuring the other.