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Suspended States—the Sculpture of Maddy LeMel
Through combinations of the most ordinary objects that mysteriously morph into potent symbols and allegories of shifting human emotions, conditions, and situations, transformation has come to define the sculpture of Maddy LeMel. The work in Suspended States, like her previous work—encompassing pieces composed of found objects or photographs embedded in translucent Japanese papers, and trees finely fabricated from military mosquito netting, plastic tubing, metal coils, wires and consumer detritus—invites contemplation of the complex relationships and habits that aboutrm contemporary life. In her hands, rusted tools, cast off computer boards, junkshop piano rolls, cheesecloth, hardware store fencing, and sheet metal transmogrify. Thus, a large free-standing work fashioned from paper might suggest a nuclear mushroom cloud. Another fabricated from hi-tech industrial refuse poses questions concerning the natural world's absorption into a manufactured one.
Such nature/culture tensions are a constant in LeMel's practice, but in this recent installation, she turns her attention more explicitly to human nature, its various predicaments, restrictions, tendencies, cruelties, and choices. Rusted cage-like structures, all with openings/doors, range in shape from boxy and architectural, to one that conjures a melting Victorian corset. Either suspended from the ceiling or mounted on elongated metal stands, and interconnected with long pendulous "ladders," this variegated arrangement invokes bird cages, animal displays, or housing communities. Each piece in the series contains a well-worn tool from LeMel's extensive collection: ergonomic mallets, hammers, saws, vises, tongs, screwdrivers, hand drills, clamps and handles are distinctly personified and anthropomorphized, sometimes suggestively, as male and female. With their "legs" and "heads" and "teeth," the forms simultaneously evoke imprisoned exotic zoo animals.

Part of the depth LeMel's sculptures lies in its multifold art historical antecedents and formal roots: Duchamp's Readymades initiated a century-plus long conversation between the handmade and the instantly designated artwork; Picasso's Bullhead, created from a rusty bicycle seat and scrap metal, wittily returned the debate to form, aesthetics, and symbolism. Like Giacometti's haunting Palace at 4 am with its organic abstract shapes placed within a sparse white cage, injecting emotion and subjective feeling into cool Bauhaus modern design, LeMel uses architectural shapes symbolically. George Herms and the California assemblagists of the fifties and sixties invested formal ingenuity, poetry, and social commentary in their accretions of junk as LeMel does. Her serialization of primary and iconic forms indicates indebtedness to Minimalism, while maintaining a reverence for post-Minimalists such as Eva Hesse, whose organic/industrial objects, casually slung from gallery walls, influenced successive experimentation in scale, placement, and unorthodox materials.

A synthesis of art historical references cannot fully account for the abundant associations in LeMel's work, however. The framework of objects contained within a tight cell possessing an opening or escape creates multiple metaphors, most notably the use of symbols in psychoanalysis to disable imaginary fixations such as loneliness, confinement, entrapment, alienation. Whether the implications are breaking free of imposed gender/racial roles, political ideologies, or outmoded destructive thought patterns, LeMel poises us at the brink of choosing risk, freedom, change. On a spiritual level, the battered, old items by the open door might represent imminent death as release from pain and suffering, rebirth, reincarnation, or impending grace. As we enter into the post-industrial age, the configuration of obsolete tools located in rusted "buildings" accessible to one another by torqueing ladders—a subversion of the pure, shiny Modernist cube—interrogates and undermines narratives of optimism, progress, and direction in a globalized world. This uncomfortable limbo signifies the stage between possibilities, prompting us to ask, as LeMel has, what is worth saving or discarding, and ultimately, how we can be transformed.
—Constance Mallinson, 2011
Constance Mallinson is a Los Angeles-based painter and critic who has written catalogues for exhibitions and reviews for such publications as Art In America.