Despite the new consciousness-raising, biases remained. For instance, it was not noticed until the early 1980s that H.W. Janson’s History of Art, the introductory survey used by most colleges and universities across the nation, was, in fact, only the history of European and American art (primarily European), with the most cursory of glances at the rest of the world and contemporary art. And, incredible as it might seem now, up to that point, there was a total absence of women artists in its hundreds of pages.
Nonetheless, the times they were a-changin’ and more radical, more inclusive artistic production emerged to express this more expansive worldview. Lay, as a contemporary artist, believed that her work should be responsive to present reality, which meant to her it should not be insular, bounded and defined by Europe as its farthest influence. By the 1960s and 1970s, Americans could no longer maintain a blinkered, isolationist stance regarding the non-Western world. Nor did most want to. How do you keep them down on the farm once they have seen Paree (and beyond) was a question from a popular World War I song; the answer is: you can’t. Our intertwined world continues to grow ever smaller, connected by air, land, sea and instantaneously, miraculously by intangible global networks of all kinds—for better or worse.
While Lay’s contemporaries might have been similarly curious about art from elsewhere—from Asia, Africa, the Pacific Islands, Australia—many were more interested in the traditional works from the periphery, as it was once designated, than they were in its contemporary art. And, to be fair, not so much contemporary art was readily available at the time. On the other hand, American artists seemed largely disinterested in the art of the past in general, perhaps because it was believed (erroneously, since there was, of course, a long history of indigenous art) that this country didn’t have much of a cultural past to be interested in. But more, perhaps, they realized they were the artists who would represent the 20th century, catapulting toward a triumphant future, no longer in thrall to the Old World.
Lay, however, embraced not only the present and its implications for what was to come, not only other cultures as well as her own, but also the art of the past. She believed that bodies of work, despite where and when they were made, also existed in the present and had enormous impact; an 18th dynasty sculpture of the Egyptian pharaoh Hatshepsut, a woman, is equivalent to a 17th century Benin altar head or a modernist figure by Brancusi as works of art, although not in a formalist or an essentialist way, stripped of their original context and meaning. Lay does not consider revered tribal objects to be merely artifacts to be appropriated, as the controversial 1984 exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, “Primitivism’ in 20th century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern,” was vociferously accused of doing. Eurocentrism was again under attack, as a notion that was as outmoded as a pre-Copernican universe. Lay’s exhibition, “Myth, Memory & Android Dreams,” a retrospective look at more than four decades of her career, taking all this into account, demonstrates the breadth and prescience of her vision. Its very expansiveness—including the combining of art and science—is a subject in itself, as is its tilt toward diverse forms, materials and content. She instinctively knew that flux, change and complexity defined reality.
It was an early beginning. Lay knew from the time she was a child of eight that she wanted to be an artist, taking lessons in oil painting and going on, eventually, to study art at Pratt Institute in New York and the Rochester Institute of Technology upstate. She came from a family of artists. Her great grandfather, Oliver Ingraham Lay, was an eminent New York portrait painter. Her grandfather, Charles Downing Lay, was a landscape architect and town planner, as well as an artist, and designed or contributed to the design of numerous parks in New York City and elsewhere, including Bryant Park, Marine Park, and Madison Square Park; he was also the consulting landscape architect for the 1939 New York World’s Fair. Lay’s parents studied painting, one at Harvard, the other at Yale, but due to the economic exigencies of the post-war period, her father became an engineer and her mother a designer of solid-state circuitry, both working frequently for the space industry. All of this seems to have been encoded into her DNA.
Tracing the trajectory of her development from 1969 to the present, with the emphasis on more recent work, Lay’s commitment to the experimental, the multidisciplinary, and the hybridized is highlighted, as well as her interest in working with a wide range of materials. The earliest works in the show are abstract, at times brightly colored, three-dimensional wall pieces made from glazed fired clay, when clay was still generally discounted as a craft medium in this country; it would become one of her signature mediums. Primarily a sculptor, she was smitten by David Smith’s sculptures early on, in particular Large Circle (Voltri), 1962, which she first saw in Spoleto, Italy that same year. He remained an important force in her art for the next three decades. Smith’s works were abstract but also evoked figuration and landscape and his ability to draw with steel, to trace graceful lines in space with such an adamant substance–as he does in as Sentinel I, 1956, another piece she greatly admires—was a revelation.
Lay was captivated by the Earth Art movement and by artists such as Robert Smithson and Michael Heizer and their ambitious, large-scale interventions into nature. She also found the purity and serenity of Zen gardens–such as the one at Ryōan-ji, considered among the finest such gardens in the world, if not the finest—enormously sympathetic. From the convergence of these disparate sources came a series of imagined architectural landscapes in which she shifted from clay to sand and steel, glass and tile, culminating in an imposing untitled floor sculpture assembled from multiple parts, a breakthrough piece, that was shown at the 1975 Whitney Biennial. At the time that she made the series, she was also “looking at the Palace at 4 a.m.,” made by Giacometti in 1932, drawn to its enigmatic, oneiric spaces, its irrational, fantasized architecture. Lay, however, wanted to create a more meditative place, albeit with a touch of the uncanny, in which architecture (the measureable, reasonable) co-existed with more psychological elements (the intuitive), over which hovered the poetic, perhaps the ineffable.
Expanding her repertoire of materials again, Lay began to use welded steel in the 1980s. She said that one of the most satisfying works from this period for her was Untitled #6, 1986, a wall piece completed in the beginning of the series—Lay, as a rule, develops her ideas in series—in which she first combined fired clay with welded steel. Although it was a grouping that was much indebted to Brancusi, she had not forgotten Smith, as seen in lissome examples such as the freestanding Untitled #7, 1989, another key work in which both sculptors’ influences are visible, but in an interpretation that is distinctively her own. In it, the vertically oriented steel base shapes itself into a kind of spatial drawing, bold yet gracefully arced, in dynamic equipoise. An integral component of the sculpture, it is also connected conceptually to the arresting, innovative, custom-tailored bases of Brancusi. She has made other pedestals that are closer to his in appearance but the emphasis she places on them—pedestals are always an issue for sculptors–is Brancusian. The clay ovoid atop it, incised in this piece—the elegant pattern of thin stripes reminiscent of the fine parallel lines that are etched into Ife heads—colored an earthy rose (others might be a mottled blue or other shades), textured, as if it were a painting, is also a nod, however restated, to the Romanian and his clear, simple forms. They might suggest a streamlined torso or a head, say the demurely, yet coquettishly tilted head of Mlle Pogany. Pairing steel with the more yielding clay, and its expressive surfaces, Lay again adjusts the emotion/reason ratio of the works, creating a tension that is palpable and compelling. These freestanding works are more or less life-sized in height, their scale and pose underscoring their genesis in the figurative.
By the 1990s, Lay became more focused on the psychological and spiritual aspects of abstraction, on mythology, collective memory, subliminal content, and the interconnection of formal language and the human condition. The rattling of some of Western civilization’s fundamental beliefs that had begun in 1859 with the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species, was further shaken at the end of the century by anthropologist J.G. Frazer’s The Golden Bough, a study in comparative mythology and religion first published in 1890. It influenced, among countless writers, artists, and thinkers, the poet T.S. Eliot and the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, two of the seminal figures of the 20th century. To The Golden Bough was added the theory of archetypes and the collective unconscious of C.G. Jung, Mircea Eliade’s concept of the eternal return, Claude Lévi-Strauss’s development of structural anthropology, Joseph Campbell’s studies in comparative mythologies and religions, Robert Farris Thompson’s writings on the art and culture of Africa and the Afro-Atlantic and the many others who challenged the Eurocentric perspective, providing a more extensive reading of art and its guises, contexts and functions. In 1989, “Les Magiciens de la Terre,” the pioneering, much-praised exhibition that many deemed the first truly large-scale international exhibition—it included artists from Asia, Africa and South America in numbers well beyond the usual tokenism—opened in Paris, curated by Jean- Hubert Martin. It became a standard for what a global exhibition should and could be, a model for innumerable exhibitions, including “All the World’s Futures,” this year’s Venice Biennale exhibition, curated by Okwui Enwezor from Nigeria.
Lay’s Spirit Poles, 1992 and Mythoi, 1996, the latter a site-specific work permanently installed in the sculpture park of the Henie-Onstad Museum in Oslo, are two other critical works in the artist’s evolution, evidence of her new direction. Mythoi, rising more than 11 feet high, like Spirit Poles, consist of a phalanx of slender vertical shafts, each unique in shape and pattern. The effect is imposing, incantatory in its repetition, suggesting totems and other ceremonial or architectural objects. When viewed from a closer vantage point, however, they are also wholly contemporary in their forms, some like smaller versions of Brancusi’s famous Endless Column. They are part of their site but also a disruption, an intervention into nature that demarcates and defines the space, creating an ambience, but perhaps more importantly, a presence that commemorates an act of human willfulness.
The shapes are geometric, some sharply edged, others rounded, verging on the organic, each pole marked by a design in red, blue or yellow that threads the dark surface, the whole a blend of the modernist, the industrialized and the indigenous, as if recapitulating and conflating, in a swiftly concise, non-hierarchical fashion, a history of sculpture from, as Lay noted, the Americas, Africa and Oceania. Intrigued by the processes of making art and material culture, she was also inspired by the many astonishingly talented, innovative women artists of the 60s and 70s whose work broke new ground, their work addressing the same divide between the handiwork of what might be called “feminized” pre-industrialized cultures and those of “masculine” industrialized nations, between what was considered low and high art. She began to create more installations that interacted with the space and its architecture, her forms—while abstract signs and symbols from the biomorphic to the geometric—are often fanciful syntheses of the formal and the more expressive.
Toward the end of the decade, Lay began to experiment with mixed-media constructions that were a cross between reliefs and paintings in the form of small mandalas composed of varying permutations of circles and squares enclosing each other, Albers-like, the image both formal and symbolic. Her Icon series from 1998, 12” squares, when installed in a grid, seems a visual equivalent to the repetitive chanting of a mantra. They were her first serious forays into the two-dimensional, although they have components that project from the surface plane, both actually and as a feat of pictorial illusion. Lay’s newest materials, ones that she was zealously exploring for their effects, included graphite, iron filings, rust and ilmenite, phlogopite and other kinds of mica, and acrylic paint, applied to board. They almost all radiated a sheen, from subtle to high-wattage, heralding her later use of silver, aluminum and gold leaf, their added light beautiful, invoking both the metallic gleam of machines and the auratic—as if the mechanical, after all, also had a soul.
Masks appeared in her repertoire a little later, in 1999, tipping toward the less human. She created a series of minimalist, rather disquieting fired clay visages, that conjure, say, those of alien creatures with just a semblance of human features: a red slit drilled with a row of tiny holes that spans the area where the eyes are located (Untitled Mask #1, 1999); a strange protuberance that suggests a mouth, snout or spout (Untitled Mask #5, 1999), covered in rust; one starkly white form with round black rings for eyes that also evokes a target or the face of a schematized owl (Untitled Mask #3, 1999) and another one that was glazed white, its surface punctured by a small holes in a regular pattern, with two round circles cut into it like eyes, empty holes that suggests the human but also cancelling that suggestion out (Untitled Mask #8, 2000). Hybridized, post-human objects that she continued to make into the new millennium, Lay said that they refer to the tradition of African masks. They are also some of her earliest forays into the nature of what it means to be human today. What that is seems more complicated, less cut-and-dried than in the past, as genetics and other scientific disciplines dismantle our enshrined definitions of our humanity. We are being created and altered in ways that are unpredictable and might easily spin out of our control. These are discoveries and processes that raise deeply troubling ethical questions with dangerous consequences for us as a species, delving into questions of mortality and immortality, although without doubt, there are also great benefits to be conferred. Lay comments on the increasingly complex role of technology in our lives, blurring the distinction between what is human and what is machine, as we are increasingly doing in our everyday life. One of the latest is a chatbot known as Xiaoice that has become the preferred confidante for millions of Chinese, making the 2013 movie Her, in which Joaquin Phoenix falls in love with a computer operating system, more like reality. As one young user put it, quoted in the New York Times (July 30, 2015), “Siri is like a secretary but Xiaoice is a ‘life partner’.”
From masks, Lay gravitated toward full-fledged heads in the round. She models them in clay, as she does in her next sculptural series, then makes a plaster mold from them in four sections, pressing clay into the mold. These clay heads are fired. She eventually will use five different heads for the molds and after the heads are cast in plaster, she alters them individually, she explained. Among the first is Altar Head #2: Seer, 2001, a gleaming, aluminum-leafed, fired clay head that suggests a multi-ethnic bionic androgyne. It is split, with a knob that seems to hold the halves together, a knob that recalls the usnisa of the Buddha, one of its 32 identifying maha-laksanas (great marks). There is also a component affixed to its eye like a bulky monocle (a prototype for Google glass?), signaling, perhaps, the head’s visual acuity as if it were android with superhuman powers of perception; with sight comes insight. She calls them “altar heads for a postmodern global village,” springing from her previous interest in the regal altar heads of the Ife and Benin, in Egyptian, Greek and Roman portrayals of their rulers and gods, and in the multitude of Buddha images and Hindu deities that she saw on trips she took to China, Cambodia, Thailand and India at that time.
These heads juxtapose the great civilizations of the past with that of today, represented by robots, and by artificial intelligence. In popular culture, from Hal of 2001: A Space Odyssey, the robot who infamously went rogue to Blade Runner, based on a Philip K. Dick novel about androids to The Matrix and more recent Hollywood films such as Ex Machina and Terminator Genisys to multi-disciplinary artist and filmmaker Lynn Hershman Leeson’s projects on the ethical implications of biogenetics and infinitely more instances, we have been dazzled by the systems of artificial intelligence that we have invented and their extraordinary, exciting promise. As these systems’ cognitive capacities becoming increasingly sophisticated and astute, they have already begun to surpass our own capabilities in vital areas. Aware that we might lose control of our creations, we are equally fearful, based on conjectures that may or may not remain fictive, that they will turn into Frankensteinian monsters, with a mind, and possibly even feelings, of their own.
Lay, intrigued, speculates on the impact of artificial intelligence in the future, from computers to cyborgs to the yet-to-be-imagined. Returning to two-dimensional work in 2003, she conceived the “Myth + Memory” series. Montage works on gesso board, they further explore human reason and the human need for the spiritual, the mythic, for what is beyond reason. These handsome works are structurally based on Tibetan mandalas, assembled from computer memory cards and motherboards as well as scanned and collaged images of her “Altar Heads.” Lay imagines a world where the human mind is a grid powered by electronic circuits, the new receptacle for myth and memory. Myth + Memory #6: Mec-2, 2003, for instance, is a nine-unit grid, the top row featuring three impassive golden heads, facing forward, similar to the Altar Head described above. There are two of the same images in profile on either side, facing each other, and the bottom row again presents three, this time turned away to show the back of their heads, the figure seen in the quasi- round, or like a mug shot, an ID, front, side, and back. The center unit is left pretty much as is, as command central for the controlling of the network. Lay equates two systems of knowledge, that of the mandala and that of the electronic. One is traditional and the other contemporary, one emotional and the other rational, one spiritual, the other empirical. But these categories blur where they intersect, both creations of the human psyche. In her iconography, the digital is a continuation of the artisanal and the artistic, of the ongoing search for knowledge that is perhaps the most definitive attribute of our humanity.
Two years later, “Altar Heads” was superseded by another mixed media series called “Transhuman Personae,” a body of work that engrossed her for more than six years, returning to it periodically during that period to add other iterations. Transhuman Personae #3, 2005: The Spirit of our Time, after Raoul Haussmann, 1919, was the first to use computer parts which became another important addition to her trove of essential materials. These heads retain the metallic luster of the “Altar Heads” but are actually deconstructed, taken apart and reconstructed with quantities of small gizmos, with cogs, wires, disks, cartridges, hard drives, tiny microphones and other gadgetry. The heads have been enhanced, retrofitted as a computer, such as the handsome Transhuman Personae #6, 2006 and the fierce Transhuman Personae #11, 2010, an example of how complicated they can become in composition, supported by a tripod, bristling with cables and cut wires, emphatically contemporary but with a similarity to tribal regalia. The bases are often sculptures in themselves, cubes alternating with sections of cylinders, like pristine designer blocks, often in shades of silver, grey and black, such as in Transhuman Personae #8, 2008-10, again reminding us of Brancusi’s example.
Cyber Double, 2013, an unsettling column composed of two android-like heads that have been disassembled, the parts stacked, facing several directions. The insides of the heads are crammed with wiring (their brains) and recall dismembered surrealist images from paintings by Magritte or updated poly-headed gods and goddesses from older cultures. They again pose questions about the nature of being and its relationship to technology that she has driven much of her work. Thinking of them as “post-human” power figures, they are not solely derived from non-Western sources but also deeply indebted to Dadaists like George Grosz. Haussmann and Francis Picabia, in particular the latter’s machinist period. Surrealism is another major influence, and in addition to Magritte, there are traces of Max Ernst and De Chirico’s metaphysical paintings throughout. She credits particular works that have had a profound effect on her such as De Chirico’s The Great Metaphysician, 1917; the Song of Love, 1914, The Disquieting Muses, 1917 and Ernst’s Oedipus Rex, 1922, and Women, Old Man, and Flower (1923-24) as well as Fritz Lang’s futuristic classic, Metropolis.
More recently, she has been researching the nkisi figure (minkisi in the plural), a type of power figure prevalent throughout the Congo Basin, the predecessors to her power figures. These ferocious minkisi are also made from various materials such as wood, metal, glass, fabric, fiber, cowrie shells, sometimes studded with nails, and more. The force of her own “power” sculptures is more scientifically based, represented by computer parts, symbolizing the data stored within them, comprising the sum of our accumulated knowledge, yet minkisi also are imbued with knowledge and protect their believers.
Increasingly dependent upon them, we rely less on memory and more on electronic, digitalized assistance. They serve as our surrogate memory, our surrogate brain, as we matter-of-factly download or outsource what we once would have stored in our own minds. The post-human might be a robot but it might also be partially human, altered by bionic prostheses for enhanced capabilities, illustrated by Lay’s striking, fanciful “Life Support” series begun in 2008, the head framed in a steel scaffold with the emblems of digitalized empowerment. The machine is no longer merely in the garden, the pastoral disrupted by technology and industrialization, it has attached itself to our very being. Artificial intelligence is ascendant, and how the machine, humans and the metaphysical will co-exist, if at all, is yet to be determined.
In 2010, Lay began to make digital collages, a series that is ongoing and a significant part of her present production. They are some of her most visually stunning works to date, often large scaled, like wall tapestries or scroll paintings. Made in an array of seductive colors as well as more muted, more monochromatic ventures, the images derive from computer circuit boards repeated multiple times to form an intricate pattern, sometimes including small images of her heads. She prints her digital images on archival paper using archival ink; the support is archival museum board with MDF backed by wood that she later changed to a TYVEK backing, making them virtually indestructible. The titles, such as CADAC CMV0-2 #2, 2009, the especially beautiful SFL40V0-#17 17, 2010, that simulates an opulent, finely woven Persian carpet, SFL40V0-94V00#19, 2012, inspired by Persian miniatures or KB095-3, 2014, inspired by Tibetan thangkas, are the numbers stamped onto the particular circuit board used but also seem to be part of an elaborate (and impossible to remember) encryption schema of a futuristic archive.
BA-E-V0-A #6, 2010, is cosmic, with images from the Hubble telescope–stars, moons, planets, the drift of galaxies—embedded into a ground of digital circuitry, from dim to incandescent, the fine lines like delicate wisps of filigree. Her recent wall hangings are remarkably vivid, the colors ramped up, the hues artificial, electrified—hot pinks, brilliant oranges, swimming pool turquoises –as if they had all been plugged in, charged up, the gleaming metal leaf in areas providing three orders of light: the artificial, the real and the metaphoric.
She also started a “Processor” series in 2012. Silvery in color, it loops back to the “Icons” of the late 90s and early aughts. These are also near squares, somewhat larger, and conflate formal geometric shapes with mandalas and schematized images of the cosmos, as well as with a processor, the key component of a computing device that permits it to function. With it, came a “Synaptics” series that re-examines the earlier “Myth + Memory” works. Lay addresses technological transformations speculatively, poetically, as propositions and narratives. They are harbingers of a future full of doubts, conflicts, but also possibilities, viewed with the trepidation of Mary Shelley recounting her dream of “the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the [monstrous] thing he had put together” but also with the glee of a Prospero, “enthralled by a brave new world that has such people in it,” the dystopian contending with the utopian, the virtual with the real. As Gauguin and Thoreau have both asked, as Lay also inquires: where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?