With recent graphic works, sculptures and an immersive installation, Capsule Gallery’s new show Decoy presents the work of American-born artist Maya Kramer. A survey of work from the past two years, Decoy exhibits Kramer’s expansive practice, which through a variety of mediums and methods fundamentally tackles mankind’s fraught relationship with nature.
Based in Shanghai since 2010, Kramer completed her BFA at the Maryland Institute College of Art, Baltimore, Maryland and her MFA from Hunter College, New York, New York. The artworks included in the solo show are a conceptual extension of earlier works such as There is No Logic to the Days (2007-2009) and There is Nothing You Can Measure Anymore (2010). There is No Logic to the Days takes The New York Times as literal source material for an indoor jungle. A redundant spiral staircase lays in the middle of the installation, the walls covered in quotes selected at random from the very same papers used in the jungle’s construction. There is Nothing You Can Measure Anymore both physically and emblematically refers to environmental degradation by placing a laundry detergent-cast tiger skull in a one-way mirror vitrine as water dripping from above slowly causes it to crumble. Bathed in blacklight with the neon glow of a seeming x-ray, the tiger, a species on the verge of collapse due to human hubris, dissolves, the pollutants of the detergent clearly visible in the light’s glare.
In these works, and in those exhibited as part of Decoy, absence plays a significant role in Kramer’s practice. The exhibition’s text calls out two works in particular for their study of ‘emptiness’: Flashpoint (2018) and Closed Circuit (2018). Both works feature sculptures of branches, notable for their white space. In the case of Flashpoint, the aluminum-cast branch extends itself through the gallery wall, emerging in a separate space entirely. Crosswinds (2017) and Cascade (2017) take Kramer’s interest in negative space in a different direction with figurative cut outs allowing bright paint on the back of the work to naturally reflect on the white wall behind it. The resulting effect gives eerie life to the ‘emptiness’ on the surface.
Works such as Slow Swirl (2017) and Empire Violet (2018) are transformed by plexiglass encasings. In Slow Swirl, a cascade of cast feathers installed in a nook-like gallery corner speaks to the domestication of nature, hinting at anthropological display cases. These encasings are also repeated in a series using cast leaves in various stages of alteration through material decay or transformation. Empire Violet, Lemon Scented Demise (2017) and Twilight Ramblers (2017) all share the outlines of a similar type of leaf, but beyond the variation of their backdrops, they also carry distinct surface markings as the result of a variety of applied acids and alkalis.
An immediate drop in temperature welcomes visitors to the exhibition’s final room housing the immersive combination of Piecemeal (2018), Preserved I (2018) and Preserved II (2018). Piecemeal is installed on the room’s ceiling, bearing down on visitors as an overlapping patchwork of white and blue sky-colored paper. The low ceiling creates a disquieting atmosphere when combined with the whir of the refrigerator compressors maintaining the performative transformations of Preserved I and II. The two sculptures alternate in a dance of freezing and melting, the deep copper tubing rapidly transmuting into white frost and back again as the moisture in the air around pipe begins to crystalize with the flip of a switch. As one emerges anew, the other returns to a dripping stasis. Of all the electrical energy exerted to maintain this newly formed state, nature immediately reclaims her victory.
The title of Kramer’s solo exhibition Decoy refers to both the verb and noun implications of the term. In her text for the show, art writer Aimee Lin explains, “For Kramer, decoy, or a disguised ‘lure,’ is both a metaphor and a method of imitation, trapping, and reflection. Decoy is also a form of invitation––the artist is inviting the viewers to see through the mechanisms behind disguises, and to contemplate the more prevalent problems in the natural and industrial worlds.” This invitation is felt throughout the gallery space itself, with sounds both natural (rain) and industrial (compressor) constantly making the visitor aware of the intertwining of nature and artifice. The idea of things not being what they initially seem runs throughout the exhibition as one more closely examines the materials in detail.
In her own words, Kramer illuminates, “As the majority of my work alludes to humanity’s fraught relationship to the environment, Decoy hints at the way in which we’ve been ensnared by our own desires while only recently becoming aware of it. The rhetoric of mastery, and control over our environment has turned out to be hopelessly misguided – and here we are – at the Anthropocene.
Decoy also refers to an object that approximates something in nature but is manmade. Many of the objects in the exhibitions are a kind of replicas of a natural object, leaves, feathers, branches but have shifted because of the materials they are made of, coal, metals, oxidations. The oxidized leaves, for instance, seem aesthetically pleasing, but engage dissolution, decay and pollution. There is also the stilted nature of those objects, almost like a memento mori if you will.”
Enacting the work of time, pollution and decay, Kramer uses absence and presence to allow us to see through the artful trap she has laid. As she indicates, the transforming aspects of her works serve as “memento mori,” or symbolic reminders of mortality. Her poignant use of materials and discerning use of space presents a natural world that is not what it seems. Decoy explores our links to the environment and its lessons are not to be ignored.
Leigh Tanner completed her BA in Art History from Stanford University and MA in Critical and Curatorial Studies from Columbia University. She has previously worked in the Research and Exhibitions Departments of the Shanghai Project, an interdisciplinary ideas platform launched in 2016 at the Shanghai Himalayas Museum.
Her time at the Shanghai Project as well as earlier experiences in the curatorial departments of the International Center of Photography and the Museum of Modern Art, New York, have led her to believe passionately in the importance of institutions and to found Museum 2050, a platform for exploring the future of museums through the lens of China. She is currently an independent curator based in Shanghai.