Excavating the Layers: Maggie Casey’s Breaker, an Essay By Liza Coviello

Excavating the Layers: Maggie Casey’s Breaker

An Essay By Liza Coviello

Directions for recreating an object, your directions for putting together that IKEA shelf or for making your grandmother’s pasta sauce, are common languages spoken by all those who share in their use. These languages exist separately and in their own space, or trading network, from the objects that are created by utilizing them. Maggie Casey’s work investigates how these directions are reinforced over time: whether by being passed from maker to maker or individually through the continuous rehearsal of a single maker; or whether they are made unfamiliar by removing some part of the process, ostensibly permanently altering the object being created.

Breaker, the centerpiece and namesake of Casey’s installation at NAPOLEON this month, evokes a feeling of wild abandon and still manages to appear delicate. The spontaneity of the shape that evolved from the daily routine of poured plaster belies the integral nature of the material itself. It is at once solid and soft, stoic and impulsive. To create this piece, Casey veered away from the traditional method of using a plaster mold for creating a preconceived shape. Instead, she rotated the composite a few degrees and poured a “puddle” of colored plaster into a tinfoil (read: flimsy) mold every day for five months. The result, she says, “resembles a crashing ocean wave.”[i]

This work – and the process of utilizing and/or examining layers of a medium – brings to mind multiple different famous works, art historical processes, and artists. Immediately, I thought of the x-ray techniques employed by preservationists in attempting to learn more about the painting processes of masters such as Vermeer and Leonardo da Vinci. The latter, it has been revealed, used as many as thirty layers of paint to achieve that perfect sfumato on the Mona Lisa.[ii] This underpainting technique is rarely used today, but similarities between it and the wholly antithetical process by which Casey has worked for this exhibition persist.

Gerhard Richter, Abstraktes Bild (Abstract Painting), 1976

Gerhard Richter, Abstraktes Bild (Abstract Painting), 1976

Regardless of these renaissance precursors, it was the work of Gerhard Richter that {for me} gave Casey’s Breaker a definitive art historical anchor. This wholly abstract technique, for which he was well known, includes gradual and heavy accumulation of gestural swathes of paint. His Wald series, for instance, employs deep colors and vertically rhythmic lines to evoke feelings of being drawn into a dense forest. Layer upon layer of paint was added to the canvas to develop the illusion of deep space.

In addition to this similarity in process through material accumulation, Richter was highly devoted to allowing these abstract works to find their own form.

He stated, regarding Abstract Painting – the aptly and strategically titled work from 1976 – that by offering the vague name without any accompanying explanation, he was “letting a thing come, rather than creating it.”[iii] This relinquishing of expectation and of interruptions to a set process script allowed Richter to explore a more whimsical style of painting. Like Richter, Casey’s practice at large proceeds without preexisting notions as to how a piece should evolve, nor how exactly it should look. In almost all of the cases of the works shown in the exhibition Breaker, Casey’s process shows a gradual and improvisational accumulation of layers of material in different ways, be it by way of tinted pancake batter in Breadbasket or colored plaster to produce a structure completely dependent on gravity [and patience] for the piece Breaker itself. Casey permits the work to materialize for her – setting aside a prescribed expectation and overly controlled process, producing “swarm like, busy results” that harden into shape.

The works mentioned above test traditional directions for their mediums and allow for a diversion from what is expected. Not to detract from the very real methodology, the directions that Casey (and certainly, Richter) have created and followed in her (their) processes, but this work allows for a certain amount of coincidence and chance. It offers a fresh opportunity for both audience and viewer: on making associations and of envisioning new functions.


[i] From “Statement for Breaker,” M. Casey, 2014.
[ii] From “Mona Lisa’s x-ray reveals da Vinci’s painting secrets,“ retrieved from 
[iii] From Gerard Richter: A Life in Painting, D. Elger, 2009, p. 251.

About the Author:

Liza Coviello, a really interesting woman living in Philadelphia, is an arts administrator
for the Institute of Contemporary Art and independent curator for NAPOLEON.
Her undergraduate degree is in Fine Arts, focusing on ceramics and art history,
and her graduate degree is in Non-profit Leadership.
Her curatorial interests are heavily concentrated
in issues of social responsibility, justice, and reform.

 To download a .pdf version of this essay, click Casey_Coviello_2014_final

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