Wolfgang Laib at Sperone Westwater

Wolfgang Laib at Sperone Westwater
Art in America
November, 1998
p. 126

Wolfgang Laib uses the fruits of nature to create art works whose power is derived from their almost extreme modesty. Although Laib's forms are simple, his work depends on a thoughtful accumulation of effort, with a result that has none of Minimalism's sometimes shrill self-importance. Laib downplays his artistic intervention, presenting familiar components of the natural world--beeswax, marble, rice and pollen--in such density that their color, texture and smell become the focus of each piece. Nature is the star, Laib seems to be saying, and he is just the man behind the scenes.

Even the monumentality of a pair of beeswax ziggurats tall enough to graze the gallery ceiling was overwhelmed by their almost stupefying scent and dense, honey-rich color. They seemed out of place in the gallery's white glare, begging to be discovered rather than displayed. Laib's proposal to eventually site them in a cave in the Pyrenees seems entirely appropriate; in a natural setting, their manmade qualities will seem more cryptic and significant.

The ziggurats dominated Sperone's main gallery, while the second room held an installation of three much smaller works. The first was a white marble sculpture in the shape of a house, long like a chicken coop, low to the floor and banked, as by drifts of snow, with curved mounds of white rice. The "house" is roughly hewn and the marble is unpolished, which makes it sparkly and gives it an almost edible look, like salt. Another sculpture, six beeswax steps going nowhere, like a fragment of a ziggurat, climbed the far wall. The piece de resistance, alone in the vast middle wall, was a tiny, uneven mountain of brilliant yellow hazelnut pollen tucked into a small square niche. It was displayed like a jewel and engendered a mood of reverence--some of it for the interminable amounts of time Laib spends collecting the fine powder. The role of pollen as an agent of new life allows us to view it as a quiet force, a little pile of potential and possibility.

Impressive as this exhibition was, it lacked the mystery of some of Laib's earliest pieces: paintinglike squares of an almost otherworldly yellow (who would guess it was pollen?) and "Milkstones"--shimmering whiter-than-white surfaces, also square, which turn out to be thin slabs of marble gently hollowed and filled with milk. Even without that compelling "what is it?" quality, however, Laib's work succeeds, and is remarkable for its asceticism and integrity.


-Carol Diehl

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