armel Buckley is an artist infatuated with line and uncertainty. An associate professor at Ohio State University and a native of England, Buckley is enjoying her third Cincinnati exhibition in a little over a year. Featuring a series of drawings and etchings along with freestanding and wall-mounted objects, Prints and Sculpture at Clay Street Press in Over-the-Rhine is a retrospective look at her creative output from the early 1990s through the present day.
Dubbed Tools for the Imagination (1992-93), the earliest pieces on view are a patchwork assemblage of found objects and clay that evoke a fantasy utility denied by their improbable composition. Buckley’s numbered Tools lean towards identification but resist certainty. One bulbous object (#7) implies a medieval weapon, while a more enigmatic one (#9) possesses serpentine qualities. A third (#2) employs the discarded remains of a silver garden-hose nozzle to emulate the appearance of a French horn, but refuses to be pigeonholed as such.
While all of these objects are three-dimensional, their use of wire and wall placement emphasizes shape over form. The erratic orgy of lines that comprise a fourth Tool (#6) is redolent of the late painter Cy Twombly’s manic gestures and feels utterly two-dimensional. Gliding along the caster-capped handle of a rattle-like piece, the eye comes to rest upon an echo of the toy’s existence. The wire-forged outline strikes a delicate balance between the linear and the sculptural.
Buckley’s interest in the properties of line is an enduring aspect of the exhibition and is nowhere more visible than in series of six chine-collé prints created this summer. Extending the artist’s preoccupation with late-19th- and early-20th-century book illustration, these etchings take as their starting point J.J. Grandville’s Les Fleurs Animées, a work published in 1847 that presents common flowers personified in the guise of (mostly) Victorian women.
The love affair with line is on full view, but these untitled etchings defy easy classification and her interpretations of Grandville’s illustrations push ambiguity to the point of biomorphic abstraction. One work (#18) features only glimpses of legibility; in it, a man’s visage sprouts stylized foliage from his arms and legs. In another (#23), two figures in 19th-century costume look poised to embrace, but close inspection reveals them to be accretions of patterned line without distinctive human traits. Although Buckley’s etchings employ a diverse range of touch, the dashes, loops and hatch marks never model form. Exemplifying a modernist’s sense of flatness, these prints compress space and underscore shape and pattern.
Taking two-dimensionality one step further, Buckley’s untitled “Pairs” are a series of 16-by-20-inch duets performed by a hand-stitched sheet of Kitakata paper matched with an identical drawn version. In them the precise lines that make up her chine-collé etchings are reprised, but the remaining air is emptied from the space revealing curiously sculptural works on paper. Blurring the distinction between depiction and that which is depicted, these delicate diptychs are compelling in their simplicity. It’s her drawing that continues to open up possibilities.
Buckley’s forays into soft sculpture are the only apparent departures into questionable judgment. “Sweater” (2005), a black cardigan with red squares stitched into its weave feels like the work of a different artist.Its more troubled sibling “Sweatshirt” (2009) is a torn sweatshirt hung on the wall. Between the two, a tedious pile of felt sits debris-like in the corner. These pieces trade in Buckley’s impeccable sensitivity to line for an easy strategy of transporting minimally altered objects into the gallery in search of contextual magic. Unlike other works in the show, these sculptures don’t maintain a tenuous grip upon two worlds of identity. Rather, they announce themselves as little more than disheveled clothing.
The best works in this first-rate exhibition bear witness to an artist hitting her stride. The widened investigation of linear elements suggests that Buckley’s practice has expanded laterally over the years. Encompassing diverse modes of creation, it’s impossible to regard Buckley as either a sculptor who draws or a draughtswoman who sculpts. The artist, like her work, resists classification.
PRINTS AND SCULPTURE is on view at Clay Street Press (1312 Clay St., Over-the-Rhine) through November.