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)

1 comment:

Sky Pape said...

Highstein's work is tremendous. Thank you for this informative, insightful, and uplifting review.