Sterile Surroundings: Lin Emery at Arthur Roger Gallery

Nora Kovacs questions whether a gallery setting strips Lin Emery’s kinetic sculpture of its allure.

Lin Emery, Anole, 2017. Polished aluminum. Courtesy the artist and Arthur Roger Gallery, New Orleans. Photo by Mike Smith.

Lin Emery’s kinetic sculptures have graced public and private spaces for over 60 years, from her current home of New Orleans to far-off places like Japan and Singapore. Starting off as a painter, Emery’s interest in abstraction evolved quickly and by the early 1950s the artist was experimenting with welding, casting, and metalwork in her sculptural practice.

Now 91 years old, Emery claims to be “borrowing the forces of nature” (the name of the artist’s 1996 exhibition at the New Orleans Museum of Art), exemplified by her embrace of movement in its many forms. When she began, Emery was responding to the expectation that visual art be stationary—though artists like Vladimir Tatlin and Alexander Rodchenko paved the way for mobile structures at the start of the 20th century—and therefore saw movement as a way of activating her artwork and bringing it to life through dance. Though first acclaimed for her water-powered “aquamobiles,” the artist ultimately set her gaze on the air, which steers her reflective sculptures this way and that in “Ruminations,” Emery’s current exhibition at Arthur Roger Gallery.

Loud fans fill the gallery space with white noise, as Emery’s blades of polished aluminum cut the air around them at varying speeds. The sculptures catch glimmers of light with their movements, reflecting them on the gallery walls. One is reminded of windmills seen in passing on the side of a road or chimes that give sound to the transience of wind, but something about the artificiality of this particular space stifles the experience of Emery’s work.

If Emery has, indeed, borrowed her forces from nature, then the display of her work should follow suit. The gallery is man-made, as is the rush of air that powers Emery’s sculptures, making the interaction between nature, object, and viewer feel forced, instead of something organic. In fact, the slower or static pieces in “Ruminations” end up being the most compelling of the bunch, transmitting light as the viewer circles around them, thereby inviting a longer stay to discover the textural depth of each work.

Keeping in mind Emery’s past commissioned pieces for places like K&B Plaza and the New Orleans Museum of Art, there is such a rich architectural quality that her work can take on when placed in the right setting. Emery’s practice exists somewhere between Alexander Calder’s delicately moving mobiles and contemporary artist Roxy Paine’s glimmering, monumental stainless steel trees. Not quite as understated or elegant as Calder’s work, but not as imposing as some of Paine’s sculptures, Emery’s works require careful contextual consideration in order to achieve their most mesmerizing potential. Placed within the confines of Arthur Roger Gallery, however, Emery’s sculptures cannot help but fall flat, succumbing to the stagnant and sterilized surroundings that they were made to resist.

Editor's Note

Lin Emery’s “Ruminations” is on view through April 28, 2018, at Arthur Roger Gallery (432 Julia Street) in New Orleans.