Woman on Wire: Phyllis Green’s Fabulous Stunt Doubles

Few artists maintain their balance as elegantly and consistently as Phyllis Green. And I’m not just referring to gravity and its discontents – though Green’s always-inventive engagement with this oft-disregarded central pillar of sculptural practice also sets her work apart from the herd. The balancing act to which I refer consists of operating simultaneously in a multiplicity of universes which are often deemed entirely discrete – if not mutually exclusive. Figuration VS abstraction, surface decoration VS truth-to-materials, frivolity VS gravitas, sociopolitical observation VS aesthetic formalism – these are some of the received polarities whose borderlines function as highwires to Green’s exquisite bodily surrogates.

This manifest skepticism towards falling in with one camp or another stems partly from Green’s training and on-again off-again involvement with ceramics. As anyone familiar with the course of contemporary western art is aware, the role of clay in the canon of high art has been a more turbulent and contentious issue than that of performance art or photography, oscillating from centrality to outer darkness according to prevailing academic, curatorial and critical biases. Sculptors working with fired and glazed mud – when not adopting a position of radical ahistoricim - have had to develop sharp instincts to avoid being ghettoized as hippy craftspersons. 

Often the result has been work that deliberately throws itself at the mercy of the opposite camp by overtly mocking the conventions and vocabulary of traditional ceramics – decorative figurines engaged in post-modern orgies, soup tureens painted with political atrocities, that sort of thing. Phyllis Green’s oeuvre has avoided such abject literalist groveling while playfully challenging assumptions from either side of the fence, creating – for example -- surfaces that read like elaborate psychedelic glazes which are, in fact, built up from thin layers of tinted industrial polymer cement then sanded to a glass-like and fractally decorative surface, or biomorphic forms that look thrown or pinched but are constructed from lumber, chickenwire, and similar building contractor materials. But probably the most significant ongoing reference to ceramic fundamentals in Green’s work is her complex and ongoing exploration of the archetypal Vessel.

As a totemic manifestation of art’s simultaneous practicality as a McLuhanesque extension-tool and symbolic reflection of the human psyche, it’s hard to beat a nice teapot. Contained void gets emptied, contained void gets filled. That’s pretty much how she goes. Green’s sculptures rarely stray out of sight of this irreducible binary architectonic schema (and when they do – as in her early skeletal configurations, or her recent experiments in virtual reality animation – they don’t stray far), and most of her other masterful negotiations with paired-opposites of art world preconceptions can be understood as fallout from her encyclopedic choreography around this fundamental dualism. 

Green’s shifting conception of the hollow receptacle as human surrogate has ranged from patently physiological iterations that mimic the valve-studded chambers of the heart (Siren 1993) to baroquely fetishistic materializations resembling alien cargo-cult renditions of footwear, hookah pipes, musical instruments, and sex toys (the Turkish Bath series 1993-1996). A telling characteristic of many of these works has been their multidirectional orificial penetration – holes and tubes jutting every which way, rendering their viability as storage containers questionable, but suggesting – in spite of the recurrence of bulbous plugs – a previously unimagined range of passages to other states of being, points of possible connection to other self-contained vehicles. 

This multivalent openness underwent a radical reversal with Green’s Spinning Head series of “portraits” depicting celebrity heroines Amelia Earhart and Claudette Colbert and proto-feminist graphic narrative icon Little Lulu, each by way of their distinctive coiffures. These skirt-like tonsorial abstractions pay homage to the function of hairstyle as a (still ghettoized) medium of creative expression, while conjuring away the literal and metaphorical openings expected from the never-materializing parting of the waves – it’s all hair-do, no face.

The conflation of withdrawn connections and focused and emphatic display is further reinforced by the use of silver and other hi-gloss surface treatments, culminating in the chrome-plated, mirror-mounted Platinum Lulu, which amplifies superficiality to a level of transcendent near-transparency. At the same time, the Spinning Heads reduce their portals of potential exchange to a vaginal singularity, opening just enough to incorporate the phallic retail-display vernacular support infrastructure on which these wiggy artifacts are poised.

These objects, along with her even-more-recent Odd Old Things (whose leathery, bulging, tintinnabular forms are gussied up with Degas tutus) confirm Phyllis Green’s primacy as an artist of fearful symmetries, a mistress of deep design whose heartrending and hilarious social and political narratives are not grafted onto their powerfully realized formal vehicles, but uncovered within them. This is perhaps Green’s most remarkable balancing act: finding the humanist – and feminist – center of gravity within the Modernist aesthetics she plays with and against and deploys so eloquently. 

Since graduating with an MFA in painting from UCLA in 1994, Doug Harvey has written extensively about the Los Angeles and International art scenes and other aspects of popular culture, primarily as the art critic for LA WEEKLY, the largest circulation free weekly newspaper in America. His art writing has also appeared in numerous other newspapers, magazines, books, and catalogue essays. Harvey’s curatorial projects have ranged from traditional gallery and museum exhibitions to programs of sound art, found and experimental film, performance, experimental radio, comix and zines, and an LA solo gallery exhibit determined by raffle. He has also been part of the curatorial collective at the Museum of Jurassic Technology. He maintains an active art career, exhibiting his visual art locally and internationally, and participating in international experimental sound, radio, and film communities, as well as regularly teaching both studio practice and art theory. 1977-7