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The sculptures of Delcy Morelos and Charles Ray are masterpieces of New York galleries

By meerna Jun11,2024

NEW YORK — When aesthetic electricity hits, you feel it in your body. When it hits twice, it also becomes a problem of the mind: you are forced to make sense of the coincidence.

The exact same thing happened to me recently he scoured galleries in Chelsea, Manhattan’s arts district.

Strike No. 1 took place at the Dia Art Foundation headquarters in Chelsea, where for the second time in several months I encountered “El abrazo”, i.e. “The Embrace” by Delcy Morelos. “The Embrace” is actually heavy and contrived, as any good hugger knows it should be. Made of earth and clay, it fills a huge space resembling a hangar. But strangely, at least in the mind, it is also light.

Strike No. 2 appeared on the street at the Matthew Marks Gallery, where renowned sculptor Charles Ray is showing two works, among others: “Everyone Takes Off Their Pants At Least Once a Day,” a three-meter-tall sculpture of a woman undressing. Made of handmade paper, the sculpture feels incredibly, tremblingly light – as fleeting and insignificant as the blinking harbor lights. But it’s also big – larger than life size. And women’s pose – leaning forward – makes us hyper-aware of our body’s weight. (When do we feel heavier than when we took off our pants, first one heavy pant leg, then the other?)

Then, in quick succession, on 22nd Street, between 10th and 11th Avenues, I saw one work that was heavy in reality but light in imagination, and another that was light in reality and heavy in mind. What to think about them?

“El abrazo” is a massive ziggurat-like structure. Its walls rise about a foot above the ground. They rise at a slight angle towards a large skylight. They are made from earth, clay and coconut (fibers from the outer husks of coconuts), which are mixed with spices including cinnamon and cloves to give it a rich, cakey scent. Light straw protrudes from its fragile surfaces like the stray bristles of an old, giant Swede spending his vacation in Spain.

Morelos is from Tierralta, Colombia. She is in her fifties, and her two installations in New York (the second, located in the next room, is titled “Cielo terrenal” or “Earthly Heaven”) are her US debut. She is also the subject of a solo exhibition at the Pulitzer Arts Foundation in St. Louis.

You can’t see “El abrazo” right away. You will only notice its shape after circling it. On one side, in Morelos, the walls have receded at a sharp angle, creating a narrowing corridor that you can enter until the walls seem to embrace and touch you – to embrace you. In other places, these external earthen walls appear to push the building’s rectilinear shell outward.

For many people, this work is reminiscent of Walter De Maria’s “The New York Earth Room” – a deposit of 250 cubic meters of earth that, under the management of the Dia Art Foundation, has been on long-term viewing in an apartment on Wooster Street in Manhattan since 1977. It could also rhyme with Richard Serra’s giant steel sculptures that you can walk into, or James Turrell’s light-harnessing architectural environments.

What is noteworthy is that you are allowed – even encouraged – to touch “El abrazo” to return the installation’s embrace. Leaning on its subtle slope and pressing with your hands, you can feel its fragile texture and sharp edges, the parts that stick together and those that split, cut and crumble.

The scale of the object gives the impression of being massive and inexorable, but the smell of spices and the delicacy of the straw give the impression of something that, despite its size, is fragile, almost ephemeral. Seeing “El abrazo” in Manhattan, overwhelmed by the confusion of right angles and the astonishing weight of mighty architecture with deep foundations, Morelos’ earthy, biological intervention seems like the antidote you didn’t know you needed. For me it’s a masterpiece.

Like Ray, “Everyone takes their pants off at least once a day.” On the other side of the almost empty gallery, the sculpted woman appears to be carved from marble. (In the same gallery, closer to the entrance, two apparent corpses were actually carved from marble on heavy slabs: the work, also by Ray, is titled “Two Dead Guys”). So it’s a surprise when you see it is actually made of handmade paper.

At close range, the paper is seductively mushy and textured. But you’re well aware that if you leaned on it, it would fall instantly (which, of course, people often do when their legs get tangled in their jeans!).

The woman’s face is eyeless and indistinct, like the polished sculptures of Medardo Rosso or the unfinished figures that Rodin had his assistants sculpt from marble after clay models. (Ray also uses contract contractors.)

Her pose refers to Jean-Antoine Houdon’s “La Frileuse” from 1783 – a sculpture depicting a woman wrapped in a shawl, naked from the waist down and hunched against the cold – an allegory of winter. Ray’s Woman also evokes Degas’s more modern, obscene and inappropriate visions of women emerging from bathtubs, drying themselves or tying their ballet slippers.

I’ve struggled with Ray’s frictionless, conceptually overloaded sculptures before. But there is real genius in this work. It occupies space like a spooky puzzle. It’s not just an impossible thing that has become a reality. It’s more like a thing that was on its way to becoming a reality, but still existed more in the mind than in the body, and then suddenly reached reality before it was quite ready. When you look (and it’s really hard to look away!), there is a silent shift between two modes – tangibly real and merely imagined – and as a result, the few walls separating parts of your brain simply give way.

Delcy Morelos “El abrazo” (“The Hug”) Through July 20 at Dia Chelsea, 537 W. 22nd St., New York.

Charles Ray “Everyone takes off their pants at least once a day” Through June 29 at Matthew Marks Gallery, 522 W. 22nd St., New York.

By meerna

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