There could be a trace of nostalgia in the air at the new exhibit by Judy Pfaff compared to her solo exhibit at the Susanne Hilberry Gallery in 1999. Pfaff, born in England, made her way through Canada and settled in Detroit at the age of twelve, where she attended Cass Technical High School before beginning her first year of college at Wayne State University. In high school she met Todd Smith and his father, G. Alden Smith, then the Chairman of Art at WSU. That may have paved the way for a young woman with a strong portfolio. She moved on from WSU through a succession of undergraduate universities and as they say, the rest is history. 1
Known well for her early sprawling installation work after her MFA from Yale University in 1973 under the wing of Al Held, Pfaff has spent her career moving around the country making installations that occupied entire rooms, while maintaining an ongoing series of prints through Tandem Press. The new works at the Susanne Hilberry Gallery feature installations attached to the wall that vary in size and theme. Entering the space you first encounter a piece built on an oval-shaped armature of heavy wire, …and to the Peacock, Beauty. To this structure Pfaff attached honeycomb cardboard, expanded foam and melted plastic. A fluorescent light source illuminates the piece from behind. She walks a fine line between the decorative and elaborately pure aesthetic, a dichotomy that exists in a variety of ways communicated through sets of opposites. She clearly embraces the hand-made, edgy, and openly fragile work supported by a sophisticated sense of color.
Ram’s Delhi, a horizontal composition constructed of steel rod, melted plastics and black aluminum foil, spans thirteen feet. LED and UV fluorescent light introduces the viewer to options not often incorporated into traditional three-dimensional reliefs. She must have arrived at a place early on where three-dimensional did not merely mean wood, marble, plaster or bronze. Rather she chooses to intuitively wander through a menagerie of materials as part of her intellectual play. Some of Pfaff’s artwork displays a thoughtful amount of attention to placement and composition, focusing more on material. The light, recycled plastic, colorful and mischievous reliefs that feel like a musical still life capturing our sensations, enchanted me the most. These works, not planned or plotted, feel executed like the finishing strokes of Willem de Kooning’s Two Women.
The melted plastic and pigmented foam in the relief, Rangoli, replicates natural forms, but only in the gestalt, as the improvisation provides an overplay of form, color and texture, giving its audience art versus fashion. In much of the work her palette, whether dark and brooding or light and spontaneous, allows the audience to bring their experiences to these installations of abstract art. In the early 2000s, Pfaff titled a piece that summarizes a majority of her work: Controlling Chaos.
Judy Pfaff lives and works in New York City. Her exhibition at the Susanne Hilberry Gallery opened June 8 and will close August 3, 2013.
Susanne Hilberry Gallery
Ferndale, MI 48220
Ron Scott is a pseudonym for a writer based in the Detroit area. View more articles by Ron Scott.