Gloria Kischís cavernous studio occupies the basement of an office building near Saint Marks Place in lower Manhattan. Above ground, where Abraham Lincoln gave a historic anti-slavery speech in 1860 on the balcony of the Cooper Union, pierced and tattooed university students now sit on sidewalks among the pushcart vendors, debating Nietzsche and begging for change. Underneath this colorful carnival, Kisch has welded sculpture for the past decade and I have visited many times to see new work.
Before this, Kisch and I met occasionally in the East Village, when she had filled an industrial garage with lively monuments bound for exhibition. Even earlier, I habitually passed her work space in Venice, California (where we were neighbors during the 1970s), sometimes seeing her outdoor installations in open lots on the street.
Totemic pillars and posts, indoor and outdoor groups of twin and doubled likenesses, sturdy useful objects in mixed metals, and singular dark emblems centered on paper stand as witnesses to Kischís daily practice over the past 26 years. In her studio, a stainless steel and bronze furniture chest, half finished, already looks like a person with legs and arms akimbo, and her latest sculpture group, “Two Columns”, is in the process of being photographed.
“Two Columns” gleams silver in strong spotlights. A floor and wall of black paper gives the aluminum piers the appearance of floating in darkness. But the figures are not medium-referential abstractions. Each column is composed of fractal cells about the size and shape of a head. One on top of the other, the modules create a human presence.
Kischís body of work is as remarkably harmonious in intent and conception as her individual efforts have been diverse in means and materials. Not only subjective distillations of the human form, the artistís three-dimensional personas also reinvent lost communal rituals by suggesting ceremonial objects and sacred settings.
Kisch embraces this cumulative, inclusive body as her vision by persistently fashioning its features. Over time, a thematic essence materializes. The possibility for an infinitely extended verticality separates the “Columns” from fixed corporeal configurations. And this potential dwells in the structure itself.
Like Brancusiís 1918 “The Endless Column” (stacked rhomboids carved from a tree trunk, then cast in iron), “Two Columns” presents the human being geometrically through an upright spine and head, engaging and reflecting mindfulness in the midst of the wild. And like visionary architect Frederick Kieslerís 1959 models for “Endless House”óa habitation of curvilinear pods that affords a continuous flow of interior spaceó”Two Columns” presents human and homestead as entirely bonded and wholly unbounded.
The promise to flower and fruit at either extreme remains unseen, a “phantom” offshoot. But the spiritual dimension of implied form in “Two Columns” is concreteóand crucial to its design. Imaginary and bionic, this future flesh testifies to the fluidity and activity of being.
The self that can unfold in this “missing” member is the “not yet” that holds “going on” to be believable. The stick figure is thus also kindling and driftwood, portrayal and characterization, wand and lightning rod, incarnation and image, scepter and walking stick, matter and energy.
As early as 1925, Kiesler had imagined an entire city in free space based on the structure of the bridge. Stretching both technology and faith, Kischís modular pillar is a standing bridge of the same kindóa kinetic binder which, through its organizing principles, can aspire to mediate sky and ground.
In the 1960s, Marshall McLuhan envisioned a “global village” that could restore vanished local communities and engender a present-day tribal intimacy through sensed/sexed telecommunication and heightened awareness. The village of the future would not necessarily resemble its ancient counterpart. In fact, this illusive zone may not even be traced on todayís maps. “Globes make my head spin,” McLuhan explains. “By the time I locate the place, theyíve changed the boundaries.”
McLuhan attributes all alterations in social structures to the new technologies that disrupt familiar sensationó”self-amputations of our own being on the order of our sensory lives.” Shocked by the here and now, most citizensólonging for the remembered comforts of yesterday and over thereórun for the retrograde.
Artists alone (according to McLuhan), do not shrink from the challenge of bedlam. “The pain that the ordinary person feels in perceiving the confusion is charged with thrills for the artist in the discovery of new boundaries and territories for the human spirit.”1
Artists working during the late 1960s and 1970s designed organizational systems, sacramental sites, and even flesh-and-bones frames and physiques to explore this world-wide body politic. Minimal art and systems art, earth art and computer art all participated in a new “primitivism.”2
Even Kischís earliest paintings reach for the spatial actuality of sculpture and the intensity of ritual associated with the new “primitive.” “Silence” (1970), first exhibited in “Introduction í70” a showcasing of five young Californians at the Downey Museum of Art, uses more than one system of perspective to amplify its volume, and vertical intervals as breathing spaces. The diagonal borders intersect at a spot located in the deep background at dead center.
Hard-edged color contrasts zoom into your face and then, instantly, away. Numerous and often contradictory entities and relationships, juxtaposed in the style of a koan, are offered for contemplation. Yet the forms are gracefully balanced; the lines straight and clean; the surface serene.
The objects that Kisch made in the 1970s jump this page. Their character, articulated by frontal arrangements and high intensity hues in her two-dimensional efforts, is re-conceived with earthier tones and elemental constructions. Her rods and gates could rest among Michelle Stuartís stone alignments and hand-drawn maps. Kischís bones parallel Nancy Gravesís fossils of wax, gauze, dust, acrylic, and steel that access the natural history museum and its archaeological focus. The artistís patterned outdoor installations are kin to Robert Smithsonís incisions into earth that modeled the shapes and scale of prehistoric shrines. Kischís “Chimes” of steel and stone, vibrating in the wind, wed music and engineering as Nancy Holtís sun tunnels and irrigations of dry land mirror cosmic cycles, evoking the stars and spheres.
Sculptures of 1973 and í74 are slender shafts of between five and eight feet in height that lean against walls. Kisch thought that these standards, displayed alone or in groups of two, three, or four, were magic toolsóinstruments that could balance basic forces.
Some are iconic, while others resemble effigies or schematic caryatids. Built of wood, plaster, and sand, sometimes wrapped into a slight softening thickness, these pieces appear to be made from the inside out. Pared to the bone, they still hold and cover their internal marrow.
In 1975 the posts permutate, becoming limbs of ladders and gateways. The sheathed members still hug the wall, but they are made for walking. A way out and in that had not been previously addressed in the artistís oeuvre, these more palpable boughs and stems raise portals to self-direction and self-determination.
From here, Kischís art becomes a meditation on physical, psychic, and collective environments. She explores their perimeters and potentials through partsófragments that connect from work to work, series to series, and year to year in search of a whole picture.
Theologian Thomas Moore considers both ecology and economy to be related to “house” in its broadest sense. “Ecology (logos) concerns our understanding of the earth as our home and our search for appropriate ways to dwell on itÖ Economy (nomos) is concerned with the ways in which we get along in this world home and with the family of society.”3 In Kischís installations of entrances and apertures, one begins to imagine a world hearth that can be built in any room in the myriad places between her articulated thresholds.
More recently, Kisch has made monochromatic walls consisting of two, three, and four identical rectangular sections. Each segment is a separate geometric object; together, each group becomes a set of schemes for a purely individual architecture. The self-structure releases psychic energies through its process, surveying idiosyncratic and paradigmatic psychic space as its content.
This artistís dwellingóalways insinuated, never inscribedóis textured but emptied at first, and for a purpose: to gather ciphers for collective labor and cosmic wisdom. Carl Jung wrote of images that, although individual, cannot be reduced to experiences in an individualís past and thus cannot be explained as individually acquired. They correspond to collective, not personal, structural elements of the human psyche and, “like the morphological elements of the human body, are inherited.”4
Kisch housed her first in-the-round sculptural formsóporcelain figuresóin sandblasted shelters she called “whisper boxes.” In “#1”, a singular mound rises like a gravestone. In “#7”, two forms are visible behind the translucent veil, coexisting with energies of attraction and repulsion. But a viewer sees only their shadows. As light changes the contained objects over time, each environment shifts accordingly as a chamber for evolution. In his memoir, “Memories, Dreams, Reflections”, Jung tells of building a stone tower. In his sacred self-space, he painted on the walls, wrote his dreams, and recorded his visions.
In the winter of 1955, Jung chiseled the names of his paternal ancestors on three stone tablets and placed them in the towerís courtyard. “When I was working on the stone tablets,” he wrote, “I became aware of the fateful links between me and my ancestorsÖwhich were left incomplete and unanswered by my parents and grandparents and more distant ancestors.”5
Kischís most recent sculptures were completed directly after the artist returned from West Africa. This was not her first venture into a rural culture across the world; Kisch has traveled to the Amazon jungle, Borneo, Thailand, and Burma.
She is not a tourist in the usual sense. Her “Oceana” series of the early 1990s was inspired by a trip to Papua New Guinea to see a Sing Sing. In “Amazona” (her January/February 1998 exhibition at Donahue/Sosinski Gallery in New York), geography and culture, as expressed in the title, are merged experiences.
“Water Spirits” (1997) consists of brushed aluminum and Plexiglas forms suspended in water on the ground. Here the mythic human/home is part of a stream of consciousness and a primal substance. The flow of bodies of and in water is akin to that of arteries, interwoven into material life, circulating vital fluid.
“Dreaming beside the river,” Gaston Bachelard gave his imagination to the water. The anonymous water of Kischís “Spirits”óshaped, colored, and named for the godsóabsorbs all secrets. “And the same memory,” Bachelard offers, “issues from every spring.”6
Kisch searches out sites where the individuating and archetypal dimensions of ordinary life animate the metaphorical environment for her art. Her constructed environment, out of the box since 1978, is an activity within the metaphor to unite image and context.
As Henry David Thoreau put it in his journal in 1856, “It is in vain to dream of a wilderness distant from ourselves” because “there is none such.” Kisch, an American artist living in an urban hub, approaches the crafting of the self in an uncharted body of work with great care. She does not claim initiation into the mysteries of the primordial experiences of another time or place, but into those of her own. Kischís work is indigenous to the psychic diaspora of contemporary existence. Even here, she finds kin.
Susan Griffin has been watching a program about astronomy on television. “They say we are all made from star dust,” she writes. “And you have the sense now of belonging. Because in the new mold that comes over you, right along with your hunger, your cold, your weariness, you know your story is the story. It is all one story.”7
1 Marshall McLuhan and Quentin Fiore, War and Peace in the Global Village, New York/London/Toronto: Bantam Books, 1968, p. 12.
2 “Primitive” is used here to denote the conceptual adaptation of ancient/futuristic systems by artists beginning in the late 1960s. The complicated subject of the “primitive” in contemporary art has been taken up by exhibitions and texts such as Primitivism in 20th Century Art, New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1984. Edited by William Rubin. Marianna Torgovnickís Gone Primitive: Savage Intellects, Modern Lives, Chicago and London, The University of Chicago Press, 1990, addresses some of its philosophical and psychological dimensions.
3 Thomas Moore, Care of the Soul, New York: Harper/Collins,1992, p. 189.
4 Carl Jung, Psyche and Symbol, New York: Doubleday/Anchor, 1958, pp. 116-117.
5 Carl Jung, Memories, Dreams, Reflections, tr. Richard and Clara Winston, New York: Vintage Books, 1963.
6 Gaston Bachelard, Water and Dreams: An Essay on the Imagination of Matter, tr. Edith R. Farrell, Dallas: Pegasus Foundation, 1983.
7 Susan Griffin, A Chorus of Stones, New York: Doubleday, 1992, p. 362. Arlene Raven is the author of Art in the Public Interest and many other books and essays.
Arlene Raven is the author of “Art in the Public Interest” and many other books and essays.