As with her previous NYC outings, Marguerite Humeau’s current installation at the New Museum, Birth Canal, reveals an artist whose work is something of a head scratcher: A sculptural amalgam of abstraction and representation, science and art that suggests nothing less than a visit to the Natural History Museum after a bracing dose of acid. Whether this means a good trip or a bad one I’ll leave up to the viewer, though, for my tastes, the results are elegant enough, even if they strain a bit too mightily to make obscurity a virtue. Indeed, the ambiguity of Humeau’s efforts (which, according to the New Mu, “center on the origins of humankind and related histories of language, love, spirituality and war”) would seem at odds with the deep research she purportedly engages in before starting a project.
More pertinent, perhaps, is her style, a clinical mixture of Surrealism and Baroque, in which forms appear to both melt and flutter like curtains in a breeze. Usually, these objects are anchored to armatures whose schematic geometries pin them in place like lab specimens. (You wonder sometimes whether Humeau dons a white coat before heading into her studio.)
Humeau also presents her sculptures as ensembles within a mise en scène of walls and platforms painted in matching colors—a tick reprised here with the added bonus of having the space plunged into darkness. In this chthonic environment, spotlights pick out works displayed on gray, tiered podiums that curve, or jut out at sharp angles. The crepuscular mood is given a boost by a soundtrack featuring a keening female voice set over sluggish percussive beats reverberating with horror-movie vibes.
Humeau’s point of departure for this show is the deep dive she ostensibly took into the subject of prehistoric figurines like the Venus of Willendorf. These were widely believed to have served as fetishes, a means of currying favor to insure fertility from natural forces beyond the ken of Paleolithic man. Several of Humeau’s sculptures echo the squat, compact configuration of the Venus and totems like it, with a touch of H.R. Giger’s xenomorph from Alien thrown in for good measure.
So, what does this all boil down to? Well, the New Museum’s wall text states that Humeau’s aim is to connect us to the genetic ancestor we all share, the Mitochondrial Eve of 150,000 years ago. In that respect, the titular birth canal belongs to her.
I can’t say I buy it, entirely. For one thing, the theatrics surrounding the work seem silly: After all, the Venus of Willendorf and its ilk were about communing with the unknown, not staging it with effects. Ultimately, Humeau appears more interested in science than in poetry—which is why, for all its bells and whistles, Birth Canal lacks its inspiration’s sense of mystery.