Marcie Miller Gross at Joseph Nease
Art in America, June /July 2004
By Alice Thorson
Over the past three years, Marcie Miller Gross has employed recycled hospital towels as a sculptural medium, folding and stacking them into massive blocks, tall towels and other geometric configurations. She also has placed stacks of towels on wooden shelves and benches, and at one point experimented with piling them in found furniture. The six new works in her show at Joseph Nease included freestanding towers of towels and stacks arranged on basswood shelves. Some pieces featured small blue towels used in surgery. Others were constructed from white ones that retain faint stains of human fluids.
Gross cites Donald Judd as an important influence, but her work, like that of many artists who have revisited Minimalism in recent years, replaces that idiom's signature hard edges and industrial modes of manufacture with soft forms and malleable materials submitted to a hands-on mode of assembly. Recalling one of Judd's "Progression" sculptures from 1970, Compress #2 featured three wall-mounted 6 -foot-long basswood planks, displayed one above the other roughly 6 inches apart and stacked at irregular intervals with short piles of folded blue surgical towels. Gross also created a tall, narrow version, Compress (Vertical), in about the same dimensions.
In Gravity, a pair of roughly 2-foot-high stacks of folded white towels appear side by side on a shelf slightly shorter than their combined width. Deprived of a support, the outer edges of each stack curve downward like the pages of an open book. Density, a shallow grid of stacks of folded white towels on a narrow shelf, suggested a relief version of the textural white canvases of Robert Ryman. Gross' composition, however, with its bleached yet telltale stains, evokes the suffering bodies these towels have touched. Subtle, but evident, the stains similarly insinuate a human presence into Release, an 11-foot tall stack of folded white towels mounted on a low shelf. The tall vertical form relates to columns and obelisks and other commemorative public structures, yet here it is private suffering that is memorialized. Each stained towel is like a a step along the path to release.
The exhibition's most ambitious piece, Axis, employs hundreds of unfolded blue surgical towels stacked into a narrow tower that rose from floor to ceiling. Repeated use and multiple washings have distorted the cloths' flat rectangularity and ruffled their regular edges, adding poetry and softness to this simple geometric structure. In a recent interview, Gross observed that the Minimalists "were trying to eliminate expressive content," adding: "I'm trying to work with the expressive content of the material." And so she does.