Katie Grinnan: Polaris

The MAK Center for Art and Architecture
Los Angeles, CA
Karen Dunbar

Katie Grinnan, <em>Polaris</em>, installation view, MAK Center at the Schindler House, Los Angeles.

Katie Grinnan’s sculptures in the exhibition Polaris assert themselves within the compact interior spaces of the MAK Center at the Schindler House and strategically occupy adjacent outdoor spaces. Incorporating allusions to astronomy, tourism, and artifacts, these works provoke reflection on polarities from the sublime to the picturesque, from interiority to exteriority, and from personal to historical narratives.

Through the works Alignment and Continuum (all works 2008), crowded together in one room, Grinnan establishes some central concerns. In both, Chichén Itzá’s El Castillo, an ancient Mayan pyramid flanked by four flights of stairs, serves as a repeating formal element.1 Here, the monumental pyramid is rendered at model scale, with each casting at about one cubic foot in dimension. The casts, made of Friendly Plastic, are placed base to base, as if in a mirror image, which causes the doubled pyramid shape to visually unify into an octagonal block.2

In Alignment, the blocks perch on tapered, fragmented supports, taking on a figurative quality. Three such figural elements are set in a straight line. Alignment is totemic, imbued with a pop-culture sci-fi quality that conjures “made-by-aliens” fantasies about ancient structures. The surfaces have lush areas of super-saturated blue (think Yves Klein’s International Blue or filmic blue screen).3 Other sections are wrapped with photographic images of constellations, the sun, and the moon that are drastically eroded and crackled, sometimes to the point of being barely recognizable. Polaris, a star that for thousands of years has served as a reference point for navigation and timekeeping, may be among the images, but if so, it is impossible to identify definitively.4 Pathos and humor can be found in how completely these pictorial elements are fused to the surfaces of the sculptures—they remind me of those shrink-wrapped public buses that become mobile advertisements. The effect created by this work is one of dissonance, undermining the integrity of both image and form. The potentially significant pyramid becomes subsumed into a barely readable support for the image; the image becomes a disjunctive veneer of pure decoration.

Literary critic Susan Stewart, whose constellation of inquiry includes the gigantic, the miniature, the souvenir and the collection as a means of situating the human body in relation to objects and their meaning, describes the sky as the most typical example of the gigantic world. Vast and undifferentiated, it is sublime and potentially terrifying to apprehend. Per Stewart, various traditions—philosophic and poetic treatises on the beautiful, romantic pastoral paintings, the Victorian taming of nature within the picturesque, even Earthworks of the ‘60s and ‘70s—have sought through varied strategies to represent and contain the enormity of natural space, whether encompassing land or sky.5 A similar conversion takes place in Grinnan’s Alignment, where the vast expanse of outer space is brought comfortably close and seductively contained.


  1. El Castillo, a.k.a. Kukulkan’s pyramid (ca. 1000 CE ), was completed in the Post Classic period of Chichén Itzá. The four sides of the 79-foot high structure face cardinal directions. Each side has a staircase with 91 steps (an unusual feature, as most Mayan pyramids feature only two staircases). If one adds the number of all the steps together, including the top step of the platform, the total is 365 the number of days in the solar year. During the spring and fall equinoxes, shadows cast by the setting sun give the appearance of a snake undulating down the stairways. “Chichén Itzá,” Encyclopedia Britannica Online School Edition, November 7, 2008. Spiro Kostof, A History of Architecture: Settings and Rituals (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), 435.
  2. Friendly Plastic is a popular craft material. Rumor has it that MIT students and NASA scientists also favor the plastic for building models and prototypes.
  3. In the mythology of the Church of Scientology, Polaris is the home star of the Thetans who were shipped to Teegeack (Earth) from the planet Coltis. Wikipedia, (accessed November 23, 2008).
  4. The constellation Polaris, also called “alpha Ursae Minoris” (or “little Bear” in Latin) is currently centered over the North Pole. Because of the earth’s rotation, it appears nearly stationary in the night sky and becomes a consistent reference point. Owing to the slight wobble at the axes of the earth (the North and South Poles), a succession of stars has served as the polestar over time. During the time of the Maya and Chichén Itzá, Thuban (Alpha Draconis) would have been the pole star (beginning in 2700 BCE ), succeeded, as the Mayan golden era waned, by Polaris. “Polaris,” Encyclopedia Britannica Online School Edition, November 12, 2008 (
  5. Susan Stewart, On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection (Durham: Duke University Press, 1993), 74.
Further Reading