Minding Her Own Beeswax

With a work as dauntingly large and otherworldly as the title piece in "Madeline Denaro: New Forms," an exhibit on view at the Museum of Art in Fort Lauderdale, it's revealing to watch people approach and appraise the piece. Some stand a few feet away, as if worried that the art might spring to life and physically overwhelm them. Others titter uneasily, unsure whether the work is a monumental put-on or meant to be taken seriously. Still others plunge right in, embracing the piece in all its alien majesty and mystery. One museumgoer settled onto a bench opposite and stared intently at the installation; he was still at it when I left.

A comparably large-scale, over-the-top work such as Red Grooms' Moby Dick Meets the New York Public Library, recently displayed at the Norton Gallery of Art in West Palm Beach, is so blatantly whimsical that it's hard to be intimidated by it. The piece playfully teases, daring us to take it too seriously, and its childlike exuberance easily becomes all but irresistible. There's no such comfort zone with Denaro's New Forms, which prompts an altogether different set of reactions. The ID card mounted on the wall next to the piece dryly characterizes the medium as "beeswax, gauze, wire, rubber-stamping, and meat hooks." But New Forms commands attention long before you wander over to read the card, stirring a mixed bag of responses that can't be accommodated by a mere physical description of its components.

Like the Grooms installation, Denaro's piece completely dominates the space it occupies. You begin to glimpse it as you ascend the staircase leading to the museum's grand upper-level main gallery. By the time you reach the top, there's no avoiding it: 30 or so large, irregular shapes, ranging in color from off-white to charcoal gray, suspended from the high ceiling with rubber straps and pulleys.

Some parts of the piece hang only a few inches above the carpet, others hang several feet higher, and at least one dangles far enough from the floor to allow an average-size person to walk beneath it. It may take a moment to realize that we're welcome, even encouraged, to stroll among these pendulous objects, each of which hangs a few feet from its nearest neighbor. Indeed, the surest way to get a feel for what Denaro is up to is to disregard the normal boundaries of a piece of art, to breach its frame by walking right in.

My initial skepticism gave way to awe as I made my way among the strange shapes, which hover eerily between the organic and inorganic. Through the apertures dotting the surfaces of the work's components, we see clearly that their internal "skeletons" range from wire mesh to wicker basketry, giving them a sort of hard-edged, mechanical, lifeless quality. Their surfaces, however, consist of molded beeswax that, at its most evocative, suggests human skin. And the wax plays unexpectedly on another sense: smell. Deep inside the piece, a honey-tinged sweetness hangs in the air, so faint as to be almost subliminal. (It's also subtly varied: Some of the wax has been mixed with pigment, giving it an aroma distinct from that of natural beeswax.)

Some of the shapes are also unsettlingly reminiscent of chunks of human torso. But Denaro has abstracted the human elements by melding them into the metal and wicker. Here and there she has even augmented the distance by incorporating screws and pieces of wire screen and printed paper; the "innards" that spill from the bottoms of many of the objects are similarly ambiguous. A few of the smaller pieces resemble beehives.

Still, it's obvious that Denaro wants her objects to have a human resonance. Those meat hooks, for instance, don't leave a lot of latitude for interpretation. Why else are they so prominent, if not to imply that these chunks of wax, wicker, and metal are the remains of bodies that are not only dead but also dismembered? Suddenly the scent of beeswax becomes the sickly sweet smell of decay and putrefaction.

As exhibit curator Barbara A. MacAdam notes in a panel of printed information next to New Forms, the artist anthropomorphizes the chunks of wax, gauze, and metal that make up her artwork: "In fact, Denaro herself unconsciously assigns each a gender. She finds they each have their own personality, and she refers to them as he or she."

"At the same time," the curator continues, "there is a sense of an otherworldly landscape in suspension...." Here, I think, MacAdam has hit on something even more to the point of what makes this piece so compelling. Denaro has created a space, a miniature environment with a distinct atmosphere. And once inside this space, we're asked to consider it on its own terms.

After a certain point, it no longer matters that these hanging objects, swaying and shifting ever so slightly to reflect changes in the air currents around them, have human connotations. They are also thoroughly themselves, with an internal logic that all but defies explanation.

I wish the same could be said of the half-dozen smaller, much less ambitious pieces that make up the rest of the Denaro show. Four are abstracts tacked to the walls; the other two are mixed-media installations. Of the abstracts, three are 1997 works that mix fabric, including wool blankets, with pigment and pieces of paper and palm tree hulls to form large, messy collages. The fourth, consisting of four vertically mounted rectangular panels of paper, is an untitled 1998 charcoal that also incorporates oil, gauze, and beeswax. With their earthy tones, these pieces play nicely off the colors Denaro uses in New Forms, but they ultimately seem like filler, sideshows to the main event.

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