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exhibition: Helen Mirra: Hewn third

dates: Extended: 4 March - 17 April 2004

Hewn third (the title both of this exhibition and of an individual work) is Helen Mirra's first exhibition in New York since her solo installation at the Whitney Museum in 2002.

The current show consists of paintings recently exhibited at the Berkeley Art Museum as 65 Instants. All sixty-five paintings in this series are made from reclaimed shipping pallet planks, sawn to the length of Mirra's forearm plus the width of her hand. For the museum installation, these were shown in a continuous band. In this New York show, groupings from the former project have taken on their final form: some planks are individual works; in other cases, groups of five make up a single piece. Since each plank in the Berkeley show was individually named, groups of multiple planks form texts, and groupings of planks generate new linked titles. The repetition of similar rectangles at eye height around the room leads one to read shifts of surface and color from painting to painting as visual text as well.

Related language works form part of "Hewn third." Words typed on 16mm wide cotton cloth dyed with watercolor, these works share the brevity of the planks, but present their texts as content rather than title. Mirra has used different combinations of these lines of text in past projects, as a constant editing and revisiting of text is a crucial part of her studio practice. Indeed, decision-making, informed by philosophical and literary practices, generates her work, which derives from ideas of language and of landscape, from her perception of the interrelatedness and overlap of ideas, rather than from systems of abstraction.

Add to these two kinds of work a third: a narrow, wavering band of knitted wool, roughly the size and shape of the wooden planks. Once again, a reading is demanded: the nubbly twisted strands seem purposefully marked and indented like cuneiform script.

From these quiet, restrained works emanates an extra-ordinary power, which may come from Mirra's unusual marriage of shining intelligence and a devoted compassion for the natural world. The works are beautiful, they are almost humble in their chosen simplicity of means–but they are intensely felt and very smart.

Helen Mirra's recent solo shows include Berkeley Art Museum (2004), Stephen Friedman Gallery, London (2003), The Renaissance Society, Chicago (2002) and the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York (2002). She was also included in the Italian Pavilion at the 2003 Venice Biennale. She is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Chicago.