Orly Genger shivers with excitement if you mention bodybuilding. She’s fascinated by the narcissism, myopic dedication and risks people take to develop bodies that look like caricatures to the rest of us. But it’s not just inspiration for her; it’s also a model for the way she works.
Genger is a 28-year-old wisp of an artist who works with tons of material at a time. She has gone quickly from novice (B.A. in 2001) to pro (solo shows in New York in 2004, 2005, 2007), without completing her master’s degree in fine arts.
So what’s her secret? Hard work, decisiveness, vision.
In town recently for a lecture at College for Creative Studies and the opening of her solo show at Ferndale’s Lemberg Gallery, Genger explained during an interview what led up to her arrival on the art scene.
While working on her MFA in sculpture at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, she studied fiber and architecture — the architecture part tells us she wants to make really big stuff, the fiber part says she prefers to work hands-on, by herself. The fact that she didn’t complete her degree perhaps shows she has no patience for fulfilling academic requirements when her vision already takes her beyond what’s “required” of a student.
In the 1960s, artists working with fiber set aside their looms and fine threads to work with rope, wood and industrial materials as part of the revolution to redefine what previously had been mere craftwork. Domestic arts evolved during this era, and crocheting was one of them. An off-loom technique permitted fiber artists to leap into three-dimensional space. Anne Wilson, Genger’s fiber professor in Chicago, is of the generation that came after those ’60s pioneers.
In 2002, Wilson used black thread, hair, bristles, tiny wires and straight pins to create a topological micro-universe that she subsequently made into an animated video. Wilson’s work must have seemed like an exercise in minutiae to Genger, who imagined creating something that referenced nature on a grand scale.
Around that same time, Genger was riding a bus in Chicago and saw a woman crocheting a length of flexible fabric. In that moment, Genger visualized applying that technique to her own work. She taught herself how to crochet without a hook and became so proficient that she invented her own loops and knots. Unconfined by precision and having no desire to work small, she elbowed her way past those ’60s artists and stepped over Anne Wilson’s micro-universe. Genger left Chicago for New York.
She began knotting and looping elastic, yarn and metallic ribbon to create modest installations. But, with a bodybuilder’s drive, she wanted her work to be bigger, more serious and more powerful. She had to find the right material to really pump up her work. It had to be resilient, weather resistant and flexible, with enough substance to add bulk. Bingo! Climbing rope! She located New England Ropes, a leading manufacturer in Massachusetts. For a good price, she bought rope that didn’t pass the company’s rigorous inspections as a life-saving material. It was deliriously perfect for her installations.
Genger pumps rope the way bodybuilders pump iron. For five to six hours a day, she grabs it, loops it and puts her fist through to grab the next length and make another loop. She repeats this process bent over and kneeling on the art itself as it becomes larger. Every time she comes to an edge and has to go back in the other direction, she wrestles to turn it over.
Recently, Genger decided to paint her looped panels black, a color considered serious, mournful, heavy and intimidating, absorbing heat and light. Two studio assistants help her lay the panels out on the floor. Working with a large sprayer they are soon enveloped in a cloud of black latex paint. The three of them flip over each panel and repeat the process after the first side dries. (They wear masks, but there has to be a better way to do this.) After the second side dries, the panels are rolled up, tied, dragged against the wall and stacked. These huge accumulations of rope have an imposing presence. The rolled bales shout of power waiting to be unleashed.
For each installation, the bundles of looped rope are heaved into a truck and hauled to the site where they are offloaded and piled up again. Each move gulps down energy and invests it into the objects.
Concrete Poison, a site-specific installation on the front steps of CCS’ Manoogian Visual Resource Center, suffers due to its placement and flatness. The site is full of distractions from the red “huts” on the center’s roof to the railings and stanchions that hem it in. From a distance it looks like curdled tar flowing down the center portion of the building steps and onto the sidewalk. Up close it reveals a sinuosity and a link to handwork, making it more like a memorial to the women who left their knitting needles at home to build tanks and planes during World War II, rather than anything threatening or poisonous.
Even though it takes up all the space at Lemberg Gallery, Posedown is tiny compared to Masspeak, a gargantuan work that, this past spring, took over the Larissa Goldston Gallery in New York like a dragon in its lair. But Genger is taking a new risk with Posedown. She is not out to impress us with volume or surface area. Here she flexes her muscle in the round. The title refers to the command given by the commentator to the contestants of a bodybuilding competition in their final appearance onstage together. They have 60 seconds to out-pump, out-twist, out-grimace one another in an effort to impress the judges.
You won’t find Ms. or Mr. Olympia at Lemberg Gallery, but you will see a lot of muscle. Genger directed Detroit artists Mitch Cope and Ben Hernandez to sort 200 rolls of rope looped into panels and weighing almost two tons. She had an idea, but nothing written down or sketched out. Under her sharp eye, rope was curled, crunched and draped to transform the gallery into a crowded and dimly lit room. Seventeen forms are heavy, dense, compressed. They silently radiate the force of nuclear fusion, destroying all allusions to handkerchief lace.
Painted rope hit and scuffed the walls at Lemberg, and Genger decided to enhance the effect, almost as if they’re sketches of the body and mind’s exertion. The smell of paint replaces the smell of sweat.
Orly Genger has the courage and tenacity to work out a vision that rebuffs the competitive art world and academia. Her work challenges artists to think, focus, work and show with passion. Ready? Posedown!
There are a number of shows going on in the metro area that provide context for and contrast to Genger’s work.
• World Textiles from the Collection of the Cranbrook Art Museum and Gerhardt Knodel, running through Dec. 30 at Cranbrook Art Museum, 39221 Woodward Ave, Bloomfield Hills; 248-645-3361
• Quilts were the first opportunities women had to work on a large scale. See for yourself at Boldly Embedded: American Quilts from Lancaster County to Gee’s Bend collected by Kempf Hogan, running through Oct. 20 at Center Galleries, 301 Frederick Douglass, CCS campus, Detroit; 313-664-7800.
• CCS students interpret historical textiles and apply those techniques to their contemporary designs in an exhibition that runs through Oct. 19 at the Downriver Council for the Arts Home Gallery, 20904 Northline, Taylor; 734-287-6103.
• In many cultures women wore their art as their identity. Threads of Pride: Palestinian Traditional Costumes runs through Nov. 25 at the Arab American National Museum, 13624 Michigan Ave., Dearborn; 313-582-2266.
Posedown runs through Nov. 10 at Lemberg Gallery, 23241 Woodward Ave. Ferndale, 248-591-6623. Concrete Poison is at the front steps of the Manoogian Visual Resource Building through October, on the CCS campus, 301 Frederick Douglass, Detroit; 313-664-7800.