Michael Paha at Feigen Contemporary, New York (1999)

R.J. Preece
artdesigncafé - art | 15 September 2009
This review first appeared in World Sculpture News, 5(4), pp. 82-3 in 1999.

Michael Paha at Feigen Contemporary, New York

With the installation of Memories of a Place I think I’ve Been or Wanted to Be (1996-1999), Michael Paha creates dreamy, poetic landscapes with aquariums and terrariums, wood tables, interconnected plastic pipes, and an old kitchen sink. Containing natural elements like asparagus ferns, baby palms, mosses, fish, and insects, Memories surprises and sparks contemplative reactions with its juxtapositions between man-made constructions and natural forms.

Installed in a 22 x 16-foot space, the 54-foot work is neatly lines up against three walls. Just when we but into the naturalistic illusion, we are blatantly reminded of its manipulations. This occurs when viewing a symbolic flowing “river” set in carved wood amidst green growth comically emptying into a drain, or an old kitchen sink transformed into an ecosystem. Two table-like forms support a river with exaggerated twists and turns, and a tank contains an idealized waterfall—so smooth and perfect, the water’s surface looks like a flowing carpet. Meanwhile, a case-like form supports two tanks, and books on insects such as A.D Imms’s Insect Natural History. Above, a framed picture-turned-environment further plays off the natural/man-made theme—set amidst plantings, a sanitized water loop, and a carved trunk—with a branch that gestures outward like a dynamic paint stroke. Throughout Memories, overhead greenhouse lamps provide light and nourishment, and Michael Paha allows the ecosystem to develop under these conditions.

Constructed with recycling water loops, the water unavoidably get dirty traveling through the landscapes. Two destinations are present—a tank with fish and a green-lined tank symbolically suggesting a house, and fittingly, the water is pumped back out. Repeated across the installation, the house enclosures appear back at the waterfall and an adjacent tank with water, rocks, and plant life. Showing environmental interdependencies, Michael Paha subverts the interior/exterior and natural/man-made distinctions. While Memories expresses a certain fascination with man’s environmental involvement, it also questions it a show nature’s perseverance through a manipulated framework. Appearing solidly constructed—yet delicately balanced—the possibility of “disasters” spilling onto the Gallery floor awaits.

Previously installed at Chicago’s Perimeter Gallery in 1996, this New York showing continues Michael Paha’s work since the 1980s of creating frameworks for environments to develop. The work related to the landscape genre and 1960s Earthworks while bringing natural elements into the Gallery. Memories also addresses the designs— product, furniture, interior, and environmental— that incorporate and represent nature in man-made environments. Based in Chicago, Michael Paha is a senior preparator at the Field Museum of Natural History, which appears to relate to his artwork.