By Jonathan Goodman


Originally published in Sculpture magazine, September 2016, Vol. 35, No. 7


Aljira, A Center for Contemporary Art, Newark, NJ

Pat Lay, who retired not long ago from the MFA program she founded at Montclair State University, recently mounted a major retrospective at Aljira, a prominent nonprofit space in downtown Newark. Curated by Lilly Wei, the show covered decades of work, from late-’60s clay pieces to works made as recently as 2015. There was a good mix of three-dimensional work, including archival prints whose exquisite symmetry is constructed from computer-parts imagery, but Lay has acknowledged that the true turn of her work is sculptural. 

The show included a fine array of three-dimensional objects, ranging from a tile-work installation influenced by Noguchi to African-inspired totems, to gender-ambiguous cyborg heads, from whose crowns issue Medusa-like wires with variously colored wrappings. Lay’s art is endlessly various, which indicates a curious cast of mind. She combines the very old with the very new in ways that push contemporary art forward, toward a statement that covers art history as well as contemporary sensibilities.


An untitled 1975 work, shown in the Whitney Biennial that same year, recalls Noguchi’s sunken garden at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale. Like Noguchi’s garden, Lay’s (smaller) installation has images on top of a flat surface — in this case, a plane made of ceramic tile. A circle of brown cloth, a pyramid, and a translucent box embellish the exterior, complicating the plainness of the surface. Done some 40 years ago, it is strong and independent interpretation of the Japanese sculptor, yet it doesn’t presage the work that Lay would produce in the future.


Among her most interesting and strongest works is Mythoi (1996), a group of fired-clay totems, first shown outdoors in Oslo, Norway. Consisting of more than 10 tall, narrow forms composed of repeating elements, the installation looks like a combination of high Modernism and African art. The fusion is genuinely potent. Installed towards the back of the gallery, Mythoi established an atmosphere of ritual power not often found in Western sculpture.


Lay’s high-tech heads have a close precedent in Raoul Hausmann’s 1919 bust Spirit of Our Time (Mechanical Head), which is made of wood, leather, aluminum, brass, and cardboard with various objects. In a similar manner, Lay’s androgynous clay heads are adorned with colored wire and computer parts, as in Transhuman Personae No. 11 (2010). Supported by a computer tripod, the wires fall to the ground. In conversation, Lay has indicated the influence of African nkisi, sculptural objects inhabited by spirits. These nkisi are for spirits of our time. Lay, who began to travel later in life, looks to other cultures for inspiration, successfully transforming influence into resonant statements for contemporary African audiences.