I saw Emily Payne’s recent exhibition at Seager Gray Gallery on the last day of the show: a beautiful Sunday afternoon, on which a wash of sunlight highlighted the shadows—both real and drawn—around an assortment of mesmerizing sculptures and wall pieces. Payne has been exploring books as one of her primary materials for many years; unlike many other ‘book artists,’ she mostly uses singular elements such as covers-- either the outside surface, book spines, or boards, rather than sculpting pages/ manipulating the whole volume. Payne’s painting-like compositions that combine book covers and boards, such as Almost Night (2015), invoke patchwork quilts. Parts fitted together like the pieces of a puzzle composed of multiple rectangles of dark color are interpolated with a scattered punctuation of white and cream.
Other materials that take a major role in her work are wire and, as mentioned before, the shadows cast by her own pieces. Over the course of the show at Seager Gray, Payne came into the gallery almost every day to draw on the walls and even the pedestals on which smaller wire pieces rested. The results in some cases were true fool-the-eye creations, mysterious marvels that only revealed themselves when the sculptures were shifted.
Payne’s wire works are inventive and varied, including both spiraling forms-- sometimes partially filled with book covers, as in Prism Pinwheel (2016)-- and a kind of woven, open fabric, sometimes hanging on the wall in a drift of links like Wire Shroud (2016) and, at others, connected together into freestanding tubular forms open at both ends that suggest a familial relationship to Ruth Asawa’s crocheted wire works. (Asawa and Payne’s mother, poet and fiber artist Nina Payne, were lifelong friends.)
In some of the most entrancing works presented in this show, a field of book boards becomes a canvas onto which Payne draws the projected shadow of one of her own wire pieces. One of the largest and most spectacular of these is Tumble (2017), featuring a spiraling curve 'tumbling' across a five by five foot surface. A delicate wash of gouache highlights the contrast between the form’s interior and exterior.
Payne's two pieces titled Weave Sample, one composed of wire and the other, a negative image of its shadow on book boards, are like echoes of each other. Deciding which of the two is the twin (doppelganger? stunt double?) is, seemingly, up to the viewer.
Something about Light Shroud (2016)-- an ascending curve of book covers perched, in a state of suspended animation, on an old typing table-- suggests hidden mischief. Like the self-propelled broom in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, it seems as though some of Payne's pieces might be capable of movement on their own when we aren't looking. This hint of a secret, magical life-- invoked, in part, by the artist's constant experimentation with materials, combining and recombining them in different ways—reminds us that, to her, the air around her works: the space they move through and the shadows they cast, are as essential to our experience of them and in some senses as ‘real’ as the pieces are themselves.