Petah Coyne is an American artist who creates large scale floor installations and hanging sculptures out of wax, fabric, and found objects. She often suspends her Neo-Baroque chandelier sculptures from the ceilings of galleries and museums.
Coyne was born in Oklahoma to a religious Irish Catholic family, who always encouraged her to make art. She loved the pageantry of Catholicism especially during the seasons of Lent and Easter. She attended Kent State University, Ohio in 1972-1973 and the Art Academy of Cincinnati in 1977 before moving to New York with her husband in 1997.
Coyne’s work incorporates various found objects such as artificial flowers, religious statues, hair, scrap metal, fabric, tree branches, and taxidermy which are partially hidden with a covering of molten wax. Her use of wax came about in 1994 when she and an artist friend went to Rome where they lit candles and prayed for work. After her friend found work, she mailed Coyne a box of candles blessed by the Pope.
Coyne worked with a chemist to patent an archival wax formula that she uses in melted form. She climbs a ladder and throws the hot molten wax – 227 degrees – onto a chandelier. The special wax immediately bonds with and burns the layer below. It is attached forever. “It’s my action painting,” she says.
Coyne’s early works were large black pods created from swamp material and industrial waste. She made dark sculptures out of soil, branches, and varied objects for objects that looked like tubers formlessly dangling from the ceiling. In the early 1990s, after a trip to France she began working in white. “In France, everything was so feminine and lacy and so girlie. It was all very familiar, but something that I had forgotten, and I could see that my work had become overly aggressive and confrontational.”
In 2018, her floor installation “Untitled #1379 (The Doctor’s Wife)” was the centerpiece of her first solo show in New York in a decade. This work was begun in 1997 when she first cast the two figures of the wife and mother of a Japanese surgeon, whose real-life horror story was turned into a novel in 1966. She returned to the piece two years ago using the same name as the novel to showcase how women can undermine one another. The finished work stands at 16 feet by 8 feet, a mass of hand-sewn blue, black, and green velvet with silk-waxed flowers.
Films and the poetry and novels of Virgil, Dante, Yukio Mishima, Flannery O’Connor, Zora Neale Hurston, John Didion, and others have influenced her in works such as: “Untitled #1205 (Virgil),” “Untitled #1410 (Mishima’s Spring Snow),” “Untitled #1180 (Beatrice),” and “Untitled #1272 (Raise the Red Lantern).” Her reference to writers will be the focus of an exhibition in 2021 at the Chazen Museum of Art at the University of Wisconsin.
Her awards include a grant from Pollock-Krasner Foundation; Guggenheim Fellowship; Sculpture Fellowship, National Endowment for the Arts; and a residency grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. She has had solo exhibitions in galleries, universities, and museums, such as the Brooklyn Museum, Massachusetts MOCA, Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art, Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, and others.
Her works are found in the permanent collections of New York’s Museum of Modern Art, Whitney Museum of American Art, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, New School for Social Research, Guggenheim Museum, Hirschhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Corcoran Gallery of Art, National Museum of Women in the Arts, San Diego Museum of Contemporary Art, Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati, and others.