Tuesday, February 19, 2013

a bicycle wheel by any other name

detail: Pre-empt, 2008, furniture parts, 9 x 40 x 19"

Judy Richardson
OK Harris
The old souls that inhabit Judy Richardson's sculpture are the kind that take up residence in life's residual moments. Their component parts, a melange of balusters, inner tubes, broken glass and myriad struts, spokes, joists and ribs, seem to be washed of original content, but not of history. Meticulously repurposed by Richardson, each part seems to carry its own internal narrative -- distinctly separate from, but never quite independent of the whole. 

On view at OK Harris through March 2, Richardson's wanderlust is in full force, employed by a sort of unmitigated Bohemianism that weaves through the broad narratives of memory and entropy, healing and reclamation. Her work is timely -- sentient --
something you want to see.
background: Chastity, 2010; Vietnam, 2010

Foremost in the gallery is Vietnam, in which the bones of disassembled chair legs are bound into vertical stacks that double as crutches or a cache of assault rifles. The two umbrellas that hover over them offer more tenderness than protection -- sort of like hiding under your desk in case of nuclear war.

detail: Vietnam, 2010

Here, Richardson's bundled legs, like huddled children, transport me to my childhood where I see Pearl S. Buck's Peony half open on my nightstand. The fragility of the work is evident but it also possesses a quality of indefatigability, and this is key to her art. 

In some ineffable way, Vietnam pulls at your heartstrings. I think of the crucible of landmines and subsequent tragedies, along with so many lost children. Not to be maudlin -- there is sorrow in this work, but at its core lay the heart of a warrior.

Around the corner, another umbrella form dominates the structure of Chastity, as it pulls us into a vortex of optics and physical memory. Like the cone of a giant tuba, you want to dip your head inside to absorb this mathematical convergence of warped lines. Richardson often invests her works with an abiding anthropomorphism, and here the towering figure nods forward, also invoking associations to Asia -- this time with a modest curtsey.

detail: Chastity, 2010

The act of  
recycling is 
political at its 
core  -- an act
of redemption and evolution whatever
the motivation.

The elements  
in Richardson's sculpture have 
already been something. Their 
past lives resonate
with a former usefulness that 
is soulful, and 
their anima 
resides here, 
in this fragile
the artist 
and the object. 

In this way, 
you feel like Richardson has 
not so much reassembled 
parts of things 
as she has coaxed new life out of materials that
have taken up residence 
in her studio. 

This is where the beauty is.

Richardson intuits and repurposes elements without eradicating the delicate balance between their unique character and the altered consciousness she brings to them.

Job Search, 2011, electronics, found materials, 54 x 64 x 24"

In, Job Search, the artist has engineered a maniacal aggregate of silicon chips, circuitry and casings, filament and defunct power cords. 

Heaving over splindly metal legs, the ponderous mass boasts two hulking "woofers" (not exactly defunct, since they were never more than simple apple carts) now distinctly inanimate. But in this configuration, flanking an electronic wannabe-monster, they recall deep space or cavernous sound chambers, and their depth acts as the mythic rabbit-hole that leads to someplace you really don't want to be.

An ode to powerlessness, Richardson was unemployed at the time. 

Swirl, 2007, wood, 14 x 24 x 12"

Swirl (above) flings energy the way a loose spring shoots off its axis -- spiraling outward the way it would from a centrifuge -- yet the wood curls not with a wallop, but like chocolate shavings, unfurled.

Ride, 2012, bicycle wheel, glass, metal, tar, 32 x 32 x 8 inches

A bicycle wheel by any other name -- is always a bicycle wheel. Except that in Ride, a circle of broken glass, shards of metal and swiftly deflating tires, any connotations of the wind in your hair are thrown asunder. For this inveterate bike rider, humor is where you find it, and here it's full-throttle -- going nowhere fast.

Among all this connecting and configuring, Richardson finds the human body; rendering it not in form, exactly, but in its coupling, memory, kinetics and psyche. 

Eskimo Boat, 2012, metal, wood, inner tubes, 68 x 26 x 10"

I recall watching a Latina co-worker as she kneaded flour and water together with one hand while regaling us with stories of her grandmother. When the mixture coalesced into dough she tossed little cakes on a hot grill, flipping them until they morphed into crispy golden bits of deliciousness. Flour and water. Go figure.

To me, this is how Judy Richardson makes sculpture. She is a diviner of refuse, rolling it between the palms of her hands until life slips inside -- eloquently invisible.

Pre-empt, 2008

Don't miss her show, on view in Soho until March 2nd. 

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

letter from bushwick

detail: Cape Breton Drawing, 2012, watercolor and gouache on rice paper, 27 x 27 inches

Jene Highstein
The Cape Breton Drawings, 2008 - 2012
The Cape Breton Drawings, courtesy of Danese Gallery
It's such a pleasure when amid the long arch of an artist's development another
body of work -- one for which the artist 
is less known-- is revealed. Think Dan Flavin's watercolors, John McCracken's mandalas, even Chamberlain's foam rubber or twisted foils. Such works provide insights that broaden our experience of the artist, sometimes exponentially. Oh, those mystic truths.

For Jene Highstein, an artist renown for sculptural works that are resolutely physical -- often massive in scale -- his current exhibition of The Cape Breton Drawings, on view at ArtHelix in Bushwick, is a revelation.

The paintings are elastic and bright. Highstein's splashes and throw lines surge across rice paper mushrooming into squalls of pigment or explosive speckles, loops and switchbacks. They are filled with a transcendence that feels like it contains the whole of the dome of the sky and with it, the fleeting beauty of the sublime.

Organized by the artist and curator, Bonnie Rychlak, the works are installed without any of the conventional restraints, allowing them to flutter lightly with each passerby. 


For Highstein, whose sculptural works range from human scale to the Herculean, Nova Scotia's soaring, vaulted ceiling of sky and its eternal horizon has found a pilgrim soul.

courtesy Danese Gallery, Jene Highstein, New Sculpture: Towers and Elliptical Forms, 2011

Earlier this week, Jene and I spoke on the phone about bogs and inlets, Chinese brushes, magic and the undulating landscape of northeastern Canada. 

The fact that Cape Breton is far away, hard to get to, and lacks any real popular culture has made it something of a destination for nirvana-seeking New York artists. By the 1970s friends of Highstein's were already entrenched there, but he and his family only began visiting the area some 8 or 9 years ago. They were smitten. The town they settled in on the east coast has only twelve houses; the nearest village, some ten miles away, boasts a population of 750.

"It's extraordinarily beautiful there. The environment 
is so magical -- you forget New York City. We take 
amazing walks on the peninsula -- day long 
walks -- along the shore and the bogs and high 
above the sea. You see seals and otters, but 
you don't see people."

The Cape Breton Drawings have developed over time, more as a collaboration with nature than as aesthetic observation. Highstein absorbs the natural world around him, intuiting it and recalling it in his mind's eye when he is back in the studio. He noted that in Chinese landscape painting, artists don't paint on site -- they absorb the landscape and carry it with them -- painting it not only from memory but from a psychic, or perhaps spiritual, connection.

"I feel totally liberated in this practice. I paint on 
rice paper with Chinese brushes. They're made 
so well -- I feel like the brush acts as an 
intellectual extension of my thought. "

On the stunning clarity of the Cape Breton Drawings, Rychlak noted that the artist's process 
is one of "a channeling of the natural world" -- an apt
description of these nuanced
and meditative fields of color.

Highstein emerged in the late 1960s just as minimalism, 
the dominant language of the time, was at the cusp of its own reinvention. He torqued geometry, pulling form away from the classic structure of
minimalism. Organic ovoids, urns, columns and saftig, swollen cylinders emerged.

His materials are varied, but whether Highstein employs hand-troweled cement, hand- hammered stainless steel, carved wood or bricks of ice, 
one of the salient features of his sculpture is the treatment of surface. If there is an abiding sense of anthropomorphism in his work, it resides in the skin by which the works are contained. The surfaces seem to pulse and heave as if they are breathing or waking, resting or funneling inward.

Human Scale Black, reinforced concrete, 6 1/2' x 55' x 50', Guggenheim, Bilbao, Spain

Highstein has exhibited worldwide and has created major public works and installations across Europe and the United States. He's traveled and worked in China since the 1970s, near the South China Seas where they have, according to the artist, really good factories. A collaborative spirit has resulted in projects that range from experimental theater and dance to a mesmerizing ice construction created in Finland with the architect, Steven Holl.

"You have to remember -- my generation grew up collaborating. In the 1970s, the audience, the performers and the artists were 
all the same people." 

Jene Highstein and Lawrence Weiner collaboration, 2012, Bowery Poetry Club
Most recently, Highstein  
and Lawrence Weiner 
worked in concert to 
create a mural size print 
for the Elizabeth Murray 
Art Wall at The Bowery 

The print, which measures 
a whopping 12 x 16', is a one-off that merges  
Weiner's text-based art 
with Highstein's visual 
joie de vivre. Definitely 
a punchline with a twist.


Highstein and his wife have a farm in upstate New York, too, and there a parallel body of paintings is in development. The landscape is vast, filled with rolling hills, hardwood forests, and barns. "Grandma Moses country," he remarked. The sky is an open canopy, surrounded by woodlands.

"The skies are different there -- they move fast, 
but the clouds are big and puffy, like strange 
Tiepolos. And the woods are special -- very 
magical. All those vertical lines 
-- they make me think of Ucello"

Back in Bushwick, Bonnie Rychlak and I walk the gallery, examining the face of each painting. 

The qualities are mysterious and the longer you take them 
in, the more broad the scope of the paintings becomes.

Some are full and 
flecked with pools of irridescent color, 
others are spare -- like the face of the moon.

There's music in 
them -- or sound -- 
and a silent rhythm  
that seems to 
coalesce among 
the sky and reeds 
and water as
it spills out 
across the 


You won't want to miss this show, 
on view at one of Bushwick's most forward thinking galleries,
Peter Hopkins' ArtHelix, 
through February 25th.

56 Bogart Street
Bushwick, Brooklyn
(Morgan stop on the L train)