Jean-François Chevrier
Mental Fabrication
Since 1988 Penny Yassour has made systematic — though not exclusive — use of iron, after working with a heterogeneous range of natural and organic substances. She chose an emblematic material of modern sculpture, one which artists such as Picasso, Gonzales, Giacometti, and David Smith have bent to the caprices of graphism and the figurative imagination. But iron is also a metallurgical product that marks architecture’s entry into the industrial era. This constructive model is as decisive for her work as the legacy of figurative sculpture. Already used in prehistory, iron had been infrequently employed by architects until the nineteenth century, because of its poor resistance to the weather. Industrial advances compensated for this fragility which subsists in the definition of the raw material and calls for surface alterations that can partake of craftsmanship. Thus iron exemplifies the passage from the archaic age of prehistory to the experimental spirit of modem art, via the history of the industrialization of constructive methods.

This network of determinants is far more significant than any superficial analogy to the morphologies of minimalism. Indeed, Penny Yassour’s early works, before 1988, show more affinity with the directions opened up by arte povera than with the fulfillment of hypermodernism in American art of the sixties. Today, in late 1994, a recent proposal offers a new broadening of the constructive project inaugurated by the use of iron. Here one can distinguish, more clearly than ever before, the underlying ideas that have been working through her art since 1988.
The piece takes this form: six very rigid work aprons, modeled in silicon rubber, are suspended by metal hooks from a horizontal system of iron rails or ladders supported by the uprights of a wooden armature, whose lower crossbars uphold a grated flooring. This last element suggests water (or some other liquid) flowing through the grate, beneath the hanging aprons. The structure as a whole evokes a variable, changeable construction which has been rigorously fixed and isolated, as much by the materials employed (the insulating, fire-proof rubber) as by its autonomous organization within the exhibition space (including the slight elevation of the grated flooring). The aprons and the construction of their shelter produce a strong anthropomorphic feeling. The idea of a shelter confirms the idea of protection suggested by the image of the apron, just as the wooden armature echoes the underlying motif of armor. The shelter, however, is an openwork construction; and the aprons are suspended, detached from the body, empty carapaces marked with enigmatic letters. The aprons are knotted behind but voided, like skins. They hang heavily from an interlocking metal structure which is itself suspended. The ensemble defines a complex space, rigid but disarticulated, distributed over several levels and suffused with emptiness. The montage of images thus works essentially through the association and inflection of opposing plastic (and constructive) forces, which can be summed up in three dynamic contradictions: isolation and opening, fall and suspension, weightiness and expansion.

These contradictory relations were already apparent in the previous works. For Penny Yassour, every construction is a configuration. The iron forms she articulates with each other in the space of her studio constitute autonomous figures, isolated, closed in upon themselves; they also obey a principle of expansion that breaks through their limits. The relation of isolation and expansion is already inscribed in the material nature of the iron objects, since each of them is a hollow form that resonates with any tap. The vacuity of the space between the objects, like the dynamic of intervals in a montage, results from the extension of this volumetric void. In the same way, the obsessive figure of the castle or the fortified city — summing up the ambivalence of a protective enclosure — is clearly an archetype of closed, rigorously isolated space, but also participates in the expansive structure of the labyrinth, exacerbated by a kind of planimetric bricolage. Two motifs opposing the autonomy of the plastic object converge in the new ambivalence of the labyrinth: the exuberance of the graphic imagination and the model of urban networks. The grainy, matte overlay of graphite on the iron produces an effect of fragility and preciousness, setting the works apart from the brutalism of minimalist forms in steel and from the transparent plays of glass or of smooth surfaces typically obtained through the use of plastics (so frequent in the art of the sixties). The constructions laid out on the floor thus affirm a weighty and opaque presence, contradicted by the configuration at the origin of both their internal structure and their expansion. Certain of these architectonic objects could recall the miniature archetypes of Joel Shapiro. But Penny Yassour’s intention is quite different. Since 1988 she has constructed maps above all, and it is once again a map that she now suspends on the armature sheltering the aprons.

Kevin Lynch’s book, The Image of the City (1960), was decisive for her, as was the encounter with the work of Robert Smithson, which she discovered through reproductions. The essential notion was that of the mental map, designating the specific image that an individual can form of an urban configuration. Since 1988 all her research has been oriented in this direction. What could initially seem like production of pseudo-maquettes or fictive models, near to the miniaturized archetype, has progressively become a more ambitious and ambiguous play on the plan in relief, a planimetric space converted into articulations of volumetric figures. This construction of relief plans should be considered a mental fabrication, with all the ambiguity inherent in such a phrase. At stake here is an operation of exorcism, bearing both on the historical legacy of the Second World War and on a current situation of enclosure, in the context of a community organization which resists the individualism of artistic experience. The ambivalent images of the fortified city and the labyrinth are nourished by an imagery borrowed from the history of military architecture and the war industry, all the way from the defensive structure of the ancient Roman encampment to the buried networks of German arsenals during the Second World War, by way of the underground headquarters of the American army in Manilla in the same period. All these references bring three systems of organiz ation — architecture, industrial production and urban territory — into the inclusive fourth system of a planimetric fiction enlarged to volumetric space.

The ambivalence of construction systems that simultaneously found both a protective organization and a form of enclosure is transposed into the ambiguity of fiction. Constructing a map is in itself an ambiguous activity that projects the planimetric dimension into the space of figures in relief. But this play on geometric dimensions is doubled by a play on scales. To the extent that it is presented as an autonomous, isolated object, each iron construction has been conceived at the scale of a child, particularly where height is concerned; but these constructions spread out at adult scale, without really opening up to the surrounding space. Penny Yassour explores a fictive dimension founded on a disjunction of scale between height and extention; the fiction attains the value of a limit situation, where the constructed map has ceased being a simple model and yet has not become the real thing. This disjunction is redoubled by the ambiguity of the space of reference. The figures of fortifications have the dimension (the expansion) of sand castles built on the beach, rather than of prefabricated toys in a child’s hands. Set up in a closed space (studio, gallery, or museum), these objects call to the open landscape of the seafront, with its far-off horizon. They introduce a hint of the outside in an interior space whose closure they multiply. They enclose an expanse: a constrained and impracticable expanse (except perhaps for a child who dares to enter the labyrinth; but the adult has left this child behind). The aim — if not the success — of the exorcism came at this price: it was first necessary to admit that the expansion of a territory is but an illusory enlargement of space, when it remains no more than the extension of forms of closure. Like the military installations of the Second World War, the modern metropolis only extends the networks of enclosure. As open as it may be, a protective structure determined by this principle of expansion can only shelter an empty shell.

The same ambiguity, founded on the same constructive ambivalence, works its way through the geometric dimensions, the scales, and the spaces of reference. In other words, the ambiguity of fiction cannot find any resolution in a constructive efficiency, since the latter has lost its point of application and seems condemned to a logic of blind expansion. Robert Smithson had recognized that the negative utopia of the suburban non-city holds both the model of postmodern fiction and the entropic destiny of the “new monuments” built up “against the ages”. Penny Yassour continues to verify this close link between negative utopia and the exercise of a fiction that conforms to the paradox of a monumentality without commemorative functions. She also strongly suggests this: under a military regime, and in adaptation to the organizational model of such a regime, the world of fiction remains fundamentally uninhabitable — as uninhabitable as the conflictual space of an identity split between the obligation of memory (the weight of a tragic heritage) and the call of an indefinite outside. Like the worker in the Metropolis imagined by Fritz Lang, the artist is doomed to the underground and the labyrinth. The structure that shelters him and the envelope that protects him are rigid armatures. His alter-ego is the industrial soldier, figured in numerous images by the Soviet constructivists. By introducing an evocation of the human figure in her last work, Penny Yassour has clearly rejoined this constructivist model, but in a form adapted to the negative reversal of the utopia.
Since the post-war period Western artists have been seeking a final possibility of redemption in the vacant spaces of the negative utopia, which is also to say in the deserted zones and peripheries forgotten by the logic of expansion that characterizes industrial or militaryi ndustrial power. This search began with the Italian neo-realism of the late forties and culminated in the late sixties, with minimalism and its derivations. The metropolitan theater — as distinguished from the theater of the ideal cities of the Renaissance, when the term “scenography” could be a synonym for perspective — has become an obsessive model, which today is found in all constructions privileging space and emptiness over the meaningfulness of the object and the hierarchization of figures in an architectonic structure. In this respect, the ensemble presented by Penny Yassour at the Em Harod museum is exemplary. Its complexity partakes of montage, combining heterogeneous elements, from the row of iron tunnels spread out on the floor in the foreground to the menacing shelves that marked the other side of the gallery (or Production Hall, as it was called in the title). Between these two extremes were three enormous wooden table-constructions on which were placed maps of underground arsenals (iron-impressed in silicon rubber by vacuum), and a small “monumental landscape”. This was formed of a group of hypoxyc oated plaster casts drawn from machine parts similar to the found objects exhibited on the shelves at the back of the hail. Fittingly, the principle of montage was a variation of viewpoints. The maps and the monumental landscapes, for example, seemed suspended at mid- height between the plane of the tunnels and the top of the shelves, which is also to say at the height of a child’s gaze. But the essential point, guaranteeing the functioning of the ensemble, was the interval, the vacant space between the tables and the shelves, where the perceptual experience of the spectator was no longer subject to the preceding changes of scale and viewpoint.
Between the aggressive structure of the shelves and the distant, suspended expanse of the urban landscape associated with planimetric views, the ambient space, restored to its volume, called for the return of the human figure. It is probable that the recent appearance of the image of the aprons is the result of this operation. But it is also possible, looking back over the pieces prior to 1988, that this is still no more than an indication of a work of reconstitution yet to come. In 1988, Penny Yassour had given up the curves of the natural landscape and the irregular figures of organic materials, to explore the utopian dimension of mechanized industrial forms. And yet by working with iron, she chose a material laden with a historical meaning quite foreign to utopia (which knows nothing of history) and quite distinct from contemporary “high-tech” ideology. This is what allowed her to recognize the negative fulfillment of the technical utopia in the expansion of the military-industrial mega-structures. All mobility or extension of perception was subject to this model of expansion. It functioned as a constraint, confirmed as well as contradicted by effects of suspension and distancing. The weight of this constraint is what Penny Yassour has now suspended in the openwork shelter of the aprons. The constraint has not been lifted, it is simply suspended. Like an amplified interval of montage, a new space, an other space, a heterotopia deduced from the empty spaces of the mental map, has opened up in the architectonic armature. This space, or rather, this volume, can perhaps have the value of a breath of air, under the curve of an armored torso.