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Nov/Dec 2006

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By Jennifer Kimball

Past Tense (detail).

The recent work of San Francisco sculptor Gyöngy Laky—exhibited in spring 2006 at the University of California at Davis Nelson Gallery—addresses gender inequity, unsustainable consumption, and the ongoing war in Iraq, to which she is opposed. After twenty-seven years of teaching in the departments of Design, Art, and Textiles and Clothing at UC Davis, professor emerita Laky retired in June 2005. From the time of Laky’s studies of art and design at UC Berkeley in the late 1960s and early 1970s, her sculptures and site-specific works have touched on topics of social and environmental concern. In her most recent works, she has embarked with freedom and innovation upon new journeys as artist and activist. She handles the subject matter with an expansive range of materials and construction techniques.

Though Laky’s works are assembled through simple, direct methods of hand construction that she associates with basic human ingenuity, there is nothing common about the outcome. Pieces of wood, vine, or charcoal intertwine each other as if through a process of natural formation. The resulting sculptures feel as native to their human-made form as to the orchard or vineyard. Industrial materials are incorporated as well, and as nails, wire, and screws are used to attach or accentuate, they also serve to visually express the exchange between natural and human altered realms. This exchange becomes a dialogue as themes are explored through the incorporation of language. As with the title of the exhibition—The Difficult Subjects of W: War-Waste-Want-Women—various works explore text and its changeable but related meaning. Each work interacts with lights and the backdrop of wall or floor to create shadows that further magnify depth and complexity.


Differences is a grouping of nine grapevine grids installed together to create a large work of approximately 10 feet high and wide. The vines form a seamlike network, with hundreds, if not thousands, of nails protruding; some are used to attach—keeping the piece stable, whole—while a multitude of others ride the subtle undulation of the organic form. Various parts of the grid contain bent vine letters that at first may seem not altogether determinable. With further study, letters spelling PACE (“peace” in Italian) emerge and meld into their respective places as they visually recede into a backdrop of shadows that appear almost as solid as the structure itself.

. . . And One Hungarian.

Created in response to the death of the first Hungarian soldier killed in Iraq, … And One Hungarian is another work that utilizes a grid and text. This smaller installation, at about 4 feet high and 3 feet wide, is formed from apple and plum prunings bent to spell out SCHOOLED, or SHOE/COLD, which refers both to the dead soldier and to Eyes Wide Open: The Human Cost of War in Iraq, an art installation of more than 1,500 pairs of boots by the American Friends Service Committee. Laky’s response conjures the unrestrained isolation of lives lost and the deepening familial and social fissures that result.

Globalization IV: Collateral Damage (with detail).

Other works in the exhibit are as substantial and bold as their grid counterparts are visually supple and open. In Past Tense, a minimalist but jaunty ampersand is formed of apple wood and copper roofing nails. Just as the luster of the nail heads draws the eye to the similarly shaped cut ends of the wood and its diminutively ridged bark, the entanglement of twigs forms a complex rootlike system and natural structure for the emergence of the shiny new copper. In Globalization IV: Collateral Damage, ash and commercial wood scraps are used to create a set of three letters that installed spell WAR but can also be rearranged to create other vivid elucidations of the subject: MAR, ARM, RAW, and RAM. Bullets for building are used in the construction, and their blue polished Phillips tops give a chilly illustration of so many “X marks the spots.” Paint is also used here: a deep red—flat on cut ends and glistening on branch surfaces—is unsettlingly reminiscent of muscular anatomy and its visceral chords and fibers.


In Trinity, a serene trisided tower of stacked grapevines gives relief to Laky’s weightier works. Nails and steel wire of a similar gauge link the vine like curling tendrils. Open at the top, this quiet pillar embodies the hope for healing, tolerance, and peace.

In her years teaching, Laky inspired, supported, and facilitated countless numbers of artists in their development, regardless of their choice of media or thematic perspective. Her creative autonomy and expressive candor will no doubt continue to inspire and inform from gallery and installation space.

See more work by Gyöngy Laky on her website.

Jennifer Kimball is an artist, teacher, and writer who resides in Northern California.


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