Liesl Raff

by David Misteli
April 2018

The works in Liesl Raff’s recent show “Maximal Soft” promised to transform and mollify the unfeeling hardness of the materials of heavy industry. Typically, this meant making them anthropomorphic: The two large almond-shaped steel-plate tables at the front of the room, for example, titled Eyes 1 and Eyes 2, both 2018, had steel irises mounted on a lazy Susan, and on their rims were rows of slag, dripping plasma-cut tears of steel. Similarly, three wall-hung pieces, Head 1-3, all 2017, were constructed from bent and unevenly cut sheet steel. Their anthropomorphic appeal was underlined by their hanging at eye level; in place of actual heads and faces, however, they possessed oval or semicircular flat steel surfaces, made to appear softer through the addition of an oily silicone “makeup.” While the “softness” of these anthropomorphic objects was mostly metaphorical, actual material softness was introduced to the show by three sculptures, Twist 1 and 2 and Hanging, all 2017, that featured colored latex ribbons dangling from wall-mounted steel elements.

Throughout the show, Raff’s sculptures were strongest when her techniques and surface treatments, rather than metaphors indicated by way of the works’ titles or even their forms, invoked semantic potentials not commonly associated with her materials—as evoked, for example, by peculiar objects made of modified industrial steel sheets. The artist’s handcrafted modifications, and in particular their amateurish execution—exemplified by the uneven edges of the Eyes and Head pieces, or the encrusted proliferations of epoxy on the bases of Twist 1 and 2— supplanted the “hard” industrial origin of the materials with the artist’s soft meanderings and stochastic reworkings. Producing a similar effect, the latex ribbons in the Twist and Hanging pieces displayed the signs of an imperfect casting process. Such “accidents” serve to infuse Raffs sculptures with an immediacy that is almost a kind of intimacy.

This is where the show actually reached “maximal soft.” But if the “Eyes” pieces implied that softness was about materials being emotional or having feelings, the smudgy layer of wax showing the artist's gestural manipulation of the surface exposed the limits of that idea. The artist’s physical engagement, according to the press release, was aimed at “turning industrial materials into things with emotional lives of their own.” If this sounds sentimental, that’s because it is. There is a fine line between the claim that objects have agency and the idea that they have feelings. The latter might well be understood as fetishization, the projection of human qualities such as emotions onto the products of labor. Maybe that’s a step beyond the maximal into the impossible, or maybe, as in a saying often mistakenly attributed to Lenin, “promises are like pie crusts, made to be broken.”