Someone who walked into Mason's Yard with no prior knowledge of Jac Leirner’s art would conceivably find it hard to decide whether the works that comprise Hardware Silk were made by a male or a female artist. On the basis of the ground-floor gallery’s wall-works alone – more ‘hardware’ than ‘silk’ in their rigorous horizontal alignments of rulers or spirit levels and elongated, anthropomorphic wall pieces using ‘tough’, punkish materials such as chains or climbing clips – one might think that Leirner were a man.
One of the first artists from Brazil to rise to international prominence (via a spate of high-profile exhibitions during the 1990s), Leirner doesn’t take kindly to being branded a ‘female artist’, any more than she likes to be pigeonholed as a ‘Latin American artist’. But gender and nationality are not so easily escaped, and critics inevitably latch on to these categories when discussing her work.
The inherent tension in the exhibition’s title does an adequate job of conveying the competing pulls within the work – its combination of solid and flimsy materials, of weight and lightness. ‘Mixed media’ in the titular Hardware Silk 3 (2013) is thus a useful shorthand for an array of disparate, more or less easily identifiable, metallic and brightly coloured plastic objects – disks, clamps, clips, turnbuckles, curtain rings, basically ‘whatever had a hole in it’, as Leirner put it in an interview – strung together on a 19m steel cable that cuts across the lower ground floor gallery at below chest level, forcing the viewer-turned-participant to negotiate it in order to move from one end of the room to the other.
Aside from two small-scale watercolours on paper and two more pendantlike sculptural wall reliefs whose very titles – Girl and For Him (both 2013) – invoke the human figure, most of the wall space in this room is given over to works from the 2013 Skin series, monochrome, rectangular grids made up of hundreds of neatly aligned cigarette papers (‘silk papers’ or papeis de seda in Portuguese). Stuck directly onto the wall, these come in a range of beguiling colour varieties – from ‘Watermelon’ and ‘Cotton Candy’ to the skin-coloured ‘Raw Classic’, named after flavours from Juicy Jay’s King Size Slim cigarette brand. Colour comes readymade, as it were: it inheres in these delicate sculptural materials whose habitual use carries with it the suggestion of mortality.
Leirner’s smoking habit has fed into her work ever since the 1987 Pulmão (Lung) series. In the last room, collapsed multicoloured packs of cigarettes have been lined up on spirit levels, each under the title Rolling Level (2013). For curator and critic Robert Storr, who first encountered Leirner’s work about 20 years ago while visiting her father’s outstanding collection of Brazilian abstract geometric art, ‘her link to the legacy of Concretism can be found in her pitch-perfect receptivity to the geometric and chromatic syntax of [such] found objects’. (Storr organised the first iteration of Hardware Silk at Yale School of Art, New Haven in 2012.) A final flourish in the shape of After the Show (2012) – a necklace of yet more ringed hardware, livened up by the whimsical touch of the odd plastic bracelet – gracefully rounds off this spare yet alluring exhibition.
This review originally appeared in the September 2013 issue