Fig.1. Barna Kantor. Adding by Subtracting.
Minimalist and Kinetic sculpture share the central affiliation with the viewer wherein he or she must engage the work by physically moving around and/or through it. This was the elegant simplicity of Alexander Calder’s Red Lily Pads when it was installed in the Guggenheim’s atrium, and what Rosalind Krauss discerned as she considered Robert Morris’s 3 L Beams (see figures 2 and 3). To experience the former, the viewer was presented with the opportunity to climb the winding ramp of the Guggenheim and view the sculpture from various perspectives, an opportunity furthered by the sculpture’s own rotation and the subsequent shifting of its orientation. As for Morris’s L Beams, Krauss reminds us that although they “are identical, it is impossible to really perceive them – the one upended, the second lying on its sides, and the third poised on its two ends – as the same. The experienced shape of the individual sections depends, obviously, upon the orientation of the Ls to the space they share with out bodies.”[i] In these ways, both pieces project the metaphorical ‘artwork’ away from the object itself as an autonomous form, and into establishing an interconnection between the object and the viewer, or viewers through their shared context.
Fig. 2. Alexander Calder. Red Lily Pads.
Fig. 3. Robert Morris. 3 L Beams.
Barna Kantor’s exhibition 40hz that recently closed at Big Medium in Austin, Texas reminded us of the continued vitality of these aesthetic devices. Beyond the mirrored clock-hand pieces whose hands twitched and spun in irregular rhythms was the mix-media work Adding by Subtracting (see figure 1). Utilizing three different colored sheets of perforated metal, several spot lamps, and a wall painted yellow, the work created the optical illusion of an amorphous form that appeared when viewing the installation from directly in front of it.
However, if the viewer sidestepped to one side or the other, or passed between the sheets of metal and the wall, that illusion gave way to the material reality of the situation. The optical phenomenon weakened, and was overtaken by the presentation of what made the illusion present in first place.
I witnessed this happen several times as different viewers approached the piece, studying how it worked as I had. Like a good magic trick, its quality was in its simplicity. Yet, that also seemed to endanger the work, reducing it to mere gimmickry. And that is perhaps my one complaint about the show: some of the works felt too contrived. In particular, the mirrored pieces needed a few smudges on them, and their plastic gearwheels seemed a cheap alternative to metal ones. Overall, they reminded me of the trendy aesthetics of the 1980s associated with yuppie-ism and rampant cocaine use. Of course given Austin’s current gentrification, maybe that was the point.
Returning to Adding by Subtracting however, it kept a subtle distance from the other works, and I think this was due to that collapse of the illusion instigated by the viewer. His or her interaction defined the experience of the piece. From one vantage, the work seemed to contort itself; while from the other, it gave the secret to this apparent contortion away. Yet the work didn’t do anything per se. It just sat there.
Therefore, and returning to the issues opening this review, the metaphorical artwork appeared in the object’s contortions, and explanations there of, as presented by and through the shared space between the viewer and the object.
Ultimately, works such as this remind the viewer that one is a “self only understood in experience.”[ii] I come to know myself through my relationships to those objects and persons around me. I gauge myself against the height of the sheets of metal, against their perforated surfaces and colors, against that other viewer who is passing between the work and wall where I have not yet been, or against the other viewer who is just walking in through the gallery door, seeing the show for the first time. It is an existence through existing, and Adding by Subtracting reminds us of the subtle delicacy of what that experience can produce.
[i] Rosalind Krauss, “Sense and Sensibility,” Artforum (November 1973): 49.
Posted 29th December 2014 by Arnold, H.C.