Roni Horn is an androgynous artist. She wears horn-rimmed glasses and keeps her hair cropped short. She has said that her name is her destiny. Just as her name and her appearance defy easy gender identity, her art defies easy categorization.
Though she majored in sculpture at the Rhode Island School of Design (BFA “75) and Yale (MFA ’78), she is as apt to pursue her ambiguous artistic aims in photographs and books as in glass or metal.
“The entrance to all my work,” she has said, “is the idea of an encyclopedia of identity.”
Roni Horn aka Roni Horn, a major retrospective that has made its way from the Tate Museum in London to the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston (through June 13) via the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, surveys the artist’s 30 year career in some 50 works of art that demonstrate how Horn’s search for identity has maintained a conceptual unity despite its material diversity.
Born in New York in 1955, Horn is the daughter of a pawnbroker, so the early work “Gold Field,” a 49 x 60 inch sheet of pure gold just 100th of a millimeter thick, embodies an autobiographical sense of value even as it lies on the gallery floor like a doormat.
“This Is Me, This Is You” consists of two sets of 48 photographs of Horn’s niece Georgia Loy taken when the girl was between the ages of 8 and 10. The paired sets were taken moments apart and are displayed such that they cannot be seem at the same time. They seem to say that we are never the same person from one moment to the next.
Attracted to Iceland by its own unformed identity, a young landscape just emerging from ice and fire, Horn spends part of the year in Reykjavik. At one point in her career, she lived alone in a lighthouse for two months just reading, drawings, and watching the landscapes as a way to clear her mind. Some of her best work is inspired by this Icelandic clarity.
“You Are the Weather,” for example, is a series of 100 photographs of the face of an Icelandic woman named Margret emerging from water. Horn took 200 rolls of film of Margret and edited the images down to 100 in which Margret is looking directly at the viewer, establishing a reciprocal dynamic of perception in which the woman?s face almost becomes a place in itself.
Horn has created a photographic series of the opaque surface of the Thames River that is like a meditation both on the flow of life and the mystery of death and another series of studio portraits of stuffed and mounted Icelandic birds that, in its formality and dignity, elevates the avian to the near-human.
Ultimately, Roni Horn’s art is about seeing and being, the visual and the vital. As such, “Pink Tons,” a four-foot cube of pink glass weighing five tons, is a landmark in her career. “Pink Tons” is at once substantial and entirely present yet transparent and elusory, minimalism with a feminist touch.
If you are serious about understanding what art is and how it functions in the 21st century, Roni Horn aka Roni Horn presents an ideal opportunity to be challanged by the art of a major American artist.
(Institute of Contemporary Art, 100 Northern Ave., Boston MA, 617-478-3100.)