Visual Arts Review: Anne Lilly and Carrie Seid — Tapping Into the Potential of Abstraction to Puzzle

At their best, each artist leverages the power of abstraction to bewilder in playful ways that provoke compelling ideas and a variety of emotional reactions.

Anne Lilly and Carrie Seid at William Baczek Fine Arts, Northampton, MA, through December 13.

She Made a Prairie from Anne Lilly on Vimeo.

By Anthony Merino

When Swiss psychiatrist Hermann Rorschach first began showing inkblots to his patients, he tapped into an archetypal activity of human nature. We project meaning into the world and, as proved by the Rorschach test, what someone sees often says more about the viewer than the object. Artists Anne Lilly and Carrie Seid inventively exploit our compulsion to concoct stories out of a scarcity of detail.

Lilly constructs kinetic stainless steel sculptures. Each of her forms consist of simple geometric polished stainless steel shapes: rods, cylinders and disks. The latter are balanced on interlocking gears so that a a slight twist or push will cause the pieces to twirl. The titles of two of her works, She Made a Prairie (2013) and One Clover and a Bee (2013) are inspired by a line from a poem (“To Make a prairie it takes a clover and one bee”) by Emily Dickinson. At first consideration, pairing a contemporary metal art object with a nineteenth century poem would seem to be an absurd juxtaposition. But both works share the same distinctive qualities — simple elements are manipulated to inspire complex ideas and images. Interestingly, critic Helen Vendler, when writing on this Dickinson lyric in her book on the poet, suggests that “this miniature poem could seem initially the recipe for a painting as well as a poem.”

In some pieces, Lilly generates a bewildering whirl of metal with just a slight twirl of the base. Most notably in One Clover and a Bee and Ich und Du (2013), the latter also the title of Martin Buber’s meditation on the relationship between man and God. In the clover piece, the artist sets up a rod to rotate through a set of crossed bars as the piece spins. Both the cross and the bar are set at an angle—they are rarely in a straight horizontal or vertical plane, so the shapes engage in a bewildering dance. Lilly chooses to be more minimal in Ich und Du: it features two small cylinders on which are attached long rods that flare off at about 45 degree angles. Once the work is set in motion something delightfully unexpected happens. At first the piece turns slowly, with the two rods roughly in parallel. Then they stop and one rod begins to turn in the opposite direction. This play of concert and discord generates a narrative — it is as if the two rods have a complicated relationship to one another. The fact that Lilly creates this kind of intriguing drama out of what is essentially a disk, cylinders, and rods is remarkable.

Lilly does not always achieve the same intoxicating levels of mystification in all of her works. In pieces such as This and That You (2013), where two “Y” shaped forms weave like knitting needles, and Disparate de Tonto,(2014), in which four sets of tilted goal post rods spin like egg beaters, she comes up with motion that is more intriguing than invigoratingly mysterious.

Carrie Seid, Daughter #2, 2014, aluminum, mylar, acrylic, and silk. Photo: Courtesy of

Carrie Seid, “Daughter #2,” 2014, aluminum, mylar, acrylic, and silk. Photo: Courtesy of William Baczek Fine Arts.

Carrie Seid creates light boxes out of aluminum, Mylar, acrylics, and silk. Each piece is made by placing simple geometric shapes inside of boxes that are made out of small pieces of highly reflective materials. The artist covers these rectangles with colored silk, creating a semi-transparent surface that the viewer looks through. Thus your perception of her artworks (their shape, color, and depth) depends on the angle from which you view them. In a few pieces this quality adds considerable mystique to the image, with Daughter #2 (2014) one of the standouts. Two intersecting ovals compose the central image. Each is comprised of undulations of different shades of blue (note the color’s resonance with water). In this particular piece Seid provokes a sensation of becoming; it is as if the images are in flux, anything but static. This impression accents Daughter #2‘s implied narrative: the image can be interpreted as a zygote, a fertilized egg splitting in two.

Unfortunately, most of the artist’s works come off as more pleasingly decorative than sharply thematic. (The severe abstraction of Seid’s work is at its most effective when it strikes the viewer as a puzzle that demands to be solved.) Pieces such as Fade to Blue (2014) and Thick Skin (2013) revolve around large circles in rectangular frames. As the viewer walks around these pieces their circular shapes shift about. This effect is both intriguing and, on occasion, annoying. Sometimes the impression is that you are looking at something that’s out of focus.


Seen from another angle. Carrie Seid, “Daughter #2,” 2014, aluminum, mylar, acrylic, and silk. Photo: Courtesy of William Baczek Fine Arts.

Seid’s contributes two clearly defined groups to the exhibition. There are the works whose central design is contained within the frame, such as Daughter #2. Then there are several pieces where the decorative elements bleed all the way to the edge of the frame; for example, Mother (2013) and Thick Skin (2013). By bringing her designs to the lip of the frame and beyond these pieces end up missing the haziness that invites speculation. They come off as set patterns, without ambiguity.

Both Lilly and Seid specialize in baffling the viewer. The obvious risk with this approach is that they don’t always come up with work that confounds. Still, at their best, each artist leverages the power of abstraction to bewilder in playful ways that provoke compelling ideas and a variety of emotional reactions.

Anthony Merino is an unaffiliated artist and critic working out of Adams, Massachusetts. He has published and presented papers on contemporary art internationally. Additional articles are available here.

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