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Review: Peter Macapia at Angstrom Gallery

June 19, 2009 | 10:30 am

Swarmdetail

New York-based artist Peter Macapia comes to art making with weighty credentials, a vision that spans multiple fields — including visual art, design, architecture, urban planning, geometry, physics and mathematics — and a theoretical vocabulary that’s likely to challenge even the most determined layman.

His CV, indeed, is a little dizzying. He has a BFA from the Rhode Island School of Design, a master’s in history from Harvard and a PhD in theory and criticism from Columbia. (His advisor was critical heavyweight Rosalind Krauss.) Less then 10 years out of graduate school, he is the founder and director of LabDORA, an experimental design studio concerned, according to one bio, “with design and engineering in relation to the geometry of material organization.” He’s taught at Columbia, Pratt and Sci Arc, and written and lectured on such topics as “turbulence,” “pressure,” “the prehistory of computation,” “hybrid architecture,” “computational matter” and the “material life of geometry.”

“Skullcracker,” his first solo show with Angstrom Gallery, builds on this research in ways that are, frankly, a little beyond this layman’s grasp. Each of the show’s six cut-paper sculptures involves a shape or series of shapes that is developed by way of some kind of algorithm — that much is clear — so as to reflect some concept of turbulence.

The gallery’s  news release makes a respectable effort to elucidate, explaining that the artist “develops these works using the force of a rotating volume along with algorithms for particle physics and high surface tension,” exploring the “nature of generation, transformation, and self-consumption in which the stability of form is constantly undermined by minute perturbations of matter.” But the technical details remain obscure, better suited to the pages of an academic architectural journal, perhaps, than the tactile environment of a gallery.

MacapiaScullcrackerInstall

What’s surprising, however, is how little this obscurity matters in light of the work’s enchanting physical presence. Macapia may be a mathematical thinker, but he has an exquisite sense of aesthetics, manifest in every aspect of this stirring installation, from the spatial placement of the works to the minute details of line and texture.

The largest piece, “Swarm,” consists of several hundred cut-paper objects, each about the size of a sparrow, suspended from the ceiling by strands of clear monofilament to form a flock-like wave across the length of the gallery. Made from black and white museum board, laser-cut into delicate, lace-like patterns, then molded into crumpled shapes, each piece is unique. They build in some way (again: something to do with an algorithm) on a previous form, so that the character of the shapes shifts subtly from one end of the room to the other.

Interspersed with “Swarm” are several individual pieces, each about 2 feet long, cast in a similar range of shapes. Some are encased in wall-mounted frames; the others are suspended in clear Plexiglas boxes that hang from the ceiling. Some have a spindly, botanical look, like bushy branches of pine needles; others suggest the frail, sun-baked skeletons of animals.

The objects are utterly absorbing: weightless yet structural, slight as a tissue yet exceedingly intricate, with all the spontaneous variety and complexity of snowflakes. Though clearly the product of a single, generative system, each has its own elegant integrity. There isn’t one that couldn’t be removed from the “flock,” enlarged to any scale, and left to function as a sculpture in its own right. In fact, Macapia is in the midst of just such a process, developing one of “Swarm’s” many fragments — a capsule-shaped form near the center — into a pavilion at the New York performance biennial Performa 09.

As should be the case far more often than it is in contemporary art, the intelligence of Macapia’s methods enriches the material outcome silently, almost humbly, rather than standing apart and self-consciously demonstrating its prowess. It recalls the biological intelligence of a species or an ecosystem that enriches one’s perception of its existence without needing to be precisely understood.

The bird analogy holds: At whatever level one grasps the dynamics of a flock of sparrows in motion, from visual patterns of dots in the sky to a complex interplay of signals and behaviors, one can’t help but be struck with a kind of awed delight in its presence.

-- Holly Myers

Angstrom Gallery, 2622 S. La Cienega Blvd., L.A., (310) 204-3334, through June 27. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

Top photo: “Swarm"; bottom photo: installation view. Credit: Peter Macapia / Angstrom Gallery

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