Mechanisms of Perception

“…Between the motion and the act falls the shadow” (T.S. Elliot)

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(Fig. 1) View from Alois’s studio, 2017. Image retrieved from cristintierney.com
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(Fig. 2) Caspar David Friedrich, View from the Painter’s Studio. ca. 1805-6. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City. Image retrieved from themetmuseum.org

Upon entering Alois Kronschlaeger’s studio you naturally gravitate toward the right. Your eyes scan the long dining room table, scattered with exhibition catalogues and critical theory, clamps and balls of colored yarn, or perhaps the most recent street-found object, and finally land on a narrow rectangular white washed wall covered with window screens.

Alois has momentarily put aside his mechanical devices, plexiglass, and painted basswood rods for “needle pointing” (as his mother calls his latest practice). I personally prefer “screen drawing” or “yarn drawing.” Alois still employs his ongoing exploration of aluminum mesh, this time allowing the material to keep shape as a window screen. The screen and its wooden frame double as a loom – the screen as the warp and the yarn as the weft. With a needle and yarn leaving a trace of the artist’s presence, Alois laboriously embroiders patterns reminiscent of the suprematist and constructivist geometric abstraction of the early avant-garde.

A yarn drawing or two might be half complete and clamped to the side of the wooden table. Adjacent to another couple of frames standing vertically and positioned back-to-back with their front designs exposed. Some window frames are entirely fixed to the wall while others are capable of moving on a vertical or horizontal axis via a hinge. When moving the screen on its hinge, you metaphorically play with the notion of the picture as a window onto the world. What is laid bare is not an illusion grounded in Renaissance linear perspective, but an elucidation of how these screen drawings operate within their surroundings and with human intervention. The window opens up to a world of images – yarn drawings, shadows and reflected light. Fiber, as opposed to Alois’s wood or topographically molded mesh, becomes the focal point upon which a greater degree of interactive sensory experiences occur.

SPECIFIC PLACE 

(Fig. 3) El Lissitzky, First Exhibition Room, International Art Exhibition, Dresden: det.: view of room, 1926 © 2007 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VGBK, Bonn. Image retrieved from artstor.org

Alois’s work historically recalls the Russian avant-garde rejection of the bourgeois mode of viewership. The constructivists denounced the passive for the active spectator – one who succumbs to phenomenological participation. When carefully adjusting the screen towards and away from the wall, I was transported to El Lissitzky’s 1926 great utopian First Exhibition Room (Fig. 3). I imaged the thrill, hesitancy, and slight fear of manipulating and arranging a Piet Mondrian painting along the vertical wooden lattice paneling. Which way shall I move Mondrian’s grid – up, down, left, right? Or perhaps I will remove the work entirely from the wall and play with one of Lissitzky’s suprematist paintings instead.

In Lissitzky’s exhibition room, the wooden lattice gray-scaled wall optically changed shade according to the spectator’s movement. The subject had to activate perspectival changes in the work in order to produce multiple viewing experiences, by either moving the paintings in different directions or walking across the room to see the shade of the wall shift. While there were variations in perspective, nuanced points of view of the painted surface were minimal; the work was the constant, always confined to its rectangular frame. Therein lies a clear distinction between the structure of the architecture and the works that temporarily clung to it. The form of spectatorship Lissitzky sought to generate was specific to the gallery. An active viewer of a Mondrian painting only exists in the context of Lissitzky’s exhibition space.

SPECIFIC PLACE AND OBJECT 

In the 1960s context of minimalism, attention shifts from the work as an autonomous entity to the relationship between the work and its surroundings. As Robert Morris puts it, the work of minimalists was “to take[s] relationships out of the work and make[s] them a function of the space, light, and the viewer’s field of vision.”[1] Sculpture was no longer presented as whole with a self-contained “integrity,”[2] but as objects that open themselves up to the outside world. Michael Fried, in his seminal essay “Art and Objecthood” (1967), found minimalist art unable to pictorially “hold as shape,” for meaning was not the sum of their parts.[3] In minimalism, privileged is a viewer’s perceptual understanding of the sculptural object as maintaining a physical presence within space and time – factors that are conditional.

Donald Judd, in another influential essay, “Specific Objects” (1965), wrote: “In work before 1946 the edges of the rectangle are a boundary, the end of the picture.”[4] Even if exhibition goers were able to handle a Mondrian painting along Lissitzky’s exhibition room wall – alluding to the three-dimensionality of the art object – the imagery still adheres to pictorial illusion. Without making reference to the tactile world, the lines of Mondrian’s grids do not always reach the edge of the frame implying isolation. Furthermore, there is an illusion of a figure/ground relation with overlapping lines and color fields that suggest depth. According to Judd, it was not until the onset of the post-war avant-garde that the three-dimensionality of the painted object, its “objecthood,”[5] was emphasized as an object in and of itself, rather than an illusionistic image bound to the autonomy of the compositional boundaries so championed by Greenbergian ideology.

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(Fig. 4) Robert Morris, One-person Exhibition at The Green Gallery, New York. installation view, 1964. © 2009 Robert Morris / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Minimalists removed works of art from their reserved post on the wall and pedestal. Placed on the floor or hung from the ceiling, industrial or everyday materials often iterated in multiples, now entered the viewer’s personal space. The new sculpture was meant to blend with the environment, making the viewer more aware of fluctuating and contingent circumstances. An early example was Robert Morris’s 1964 installation at the Green Gallery, New York (Fig. 4). There he presented a collection of large-scale polyhedron forms constructed out of gray-painted plywood. The installation was less a showcase of new work and more of a dialogue with the interior space of the gallery. A right angle protruded from wall to floor, a flat ceiling hung in space, a beam rested over an opening and across the length of the floor, a triangle seamlessly calculated in form, color, and measurement appeared immersed into one corner of the gallery – all sculptural interventions meant to materially mimic and thus, draw attention to the often-ignored architecture and fixtures that form the white cube.

In divergence with the paintings on view in Lissitzky’s First Exhibition Room, the sculptures presented at the Green Gallery were specific – one might say “site-specific” – to the space. Yet, the objects still retain a fixed material integrity. The literal shape of minimalist sculpture, the “specific object,” remains constant. Site-specific objects, such as Richard Serras’s Splashing (1968) or Casting (1969), where the work physically cannot be separated from its environment, would negate this argument. But, for the most part, minimalist sculpture is capable of moving locations without altering the physical work – even Morris’s Green Gallery installation is now exhibited at Dia Beacon, New York. Morris’s Untitled (Mirrored Cubes) (1965) could also serve as a counterargument, for they literally reflect their surroundings and therefore, pictorial imagery actually changes according to its environment. Even so, the work maintains a distinct sculptural volume that is capable of moving from one place to the next because the environment is not physically apart of the material of the work. Environmental circumstances shift perceptual understanding of a minimalist object, not the object itself.

FRAMING SPACE

(Fig. 5) Fred Sandback, Untitled (Two-part construction), 1996. Dia Art Foundation; Gift of the Fred Sandback Estate. © The Fred Sandback Archive. Photo: Bill Jacobson Studio, New York. Image retrieved from diaart.org

The sculptor Fred Sandback pushed the minimalist impulse a step further by privileging space. Instead of assessing a “specific object” in the context of its physical surroundings, he understood his work as the phenomenological state of “being in a place.”[6] With each new site, Sandback tautly strings store-bought, colored, acrylic yarn from wall to wall, wall to floor, wall to ceiling and ceiling to floor, drawing lines, shapes, and virtual planes within the gallery space – always finding new ways to frame space according to his architectural understanding of its interior.

If minimalism made it impossible to understand a work of art without considering the context of its surroundings, then Sandback made it possible to consider space as media. Noting the “big ‘empty’ spaces in between the lines,” Sandback finds them “no less real or material than the lines themselves.”[7] In the same vein, John Rajchman asserts: “Sandback’s spatial switches, in undoing our sense of the room as container, serve to free us from the very idea of ‘perspective on an object,’ offering us a sense of inhabiting space without objects, prior to objects, no matter what sort of perspectives we have on them.”[8] The space of the gallery was what he referred to as a “pedestrian space,”[9] a space that encourages an ambulatory perceiver to move freely within the delineation. The yarn installations do not restrict the perceiver, but allows them to gain a better sense of their own body in relation to the space they occupy.

Yarn – thin, light, and fuzzy in texture – can almost read as peripheral as it merges with the geometry of the architecture. The modernist integrity of the material dissipates amongst the white cube, dissolving into the mere presence of a line. The constant in Sandback’s work is the physical presence of “a line” in space – in whatever length, color or clarity perceived by a spectator at a particular moment. Describing the artist’s use of lines, Lisa Le Feuvre writes: “A line is a construct that does its work by being perceived. It holds a clear, singular identity; it is constant. A line is responsive to the changing conditions of the present through the various acts of perception that happen around it.”[10] A line, in Sandback’s work, is no more than a geometric distance from point A to point B that serves to underscore the relevance of what occurs beyond it.

IMAGE TRANSFERS 

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(Fig. 6) Untitled, 2017

Alois’s new work challenges historical notions of the autonomous art object in three ways. First, the works require activation by the viewer, who is not only invited to physically move the screens, but whose positioning within the gallery dictates various optical responses from the yarn drawings. Second, the translucent nature of the material, both yarn and mesh, and its mobility along a hinge, allows the screen drawings to extend past the confines of the frame to the walls and other screens. Lastly – and perhaps most central – the works serve as a means to an end, a mechanism in which to produce optical experiences. Akin to our understanding of Sandback’s work as the experience of “being in a place,” I find the source of meaning in Alois’s work in the act of perceiving optical shifts instigated by the lines and colors interlaced within the window screens.

Sandback and Alois offer two different ways to perceive a line made of fiber. Sandback uses yarn for its ability to produce delicate lines in space – a delineation that necessitates opacity. Alois concerns himself with the optical effects of fiber and thus, pays close attention to its material makeup. Where Sandback addresses the spatial relations surrounding his yarn structures, Alois sees a yarn design as a cohesive image and a generator for a subset of imagery. The lines are not just perceived by the spectator, but serve a function as both retainer and filter in which we understand how fiber interacts with light, color, and the human eye to produce multiple image transfers.

(Fig. 7) Installation view of Skylight, 2008

In Alois’s new work, you can observe the yarns ability to retain and transmit bold hues, creating optical experiences through changes in depths of field, the reversal of figure and ground, and negative and positive space. Unlike his usual application of Chinese calligraphy ink on top of basswood rods, the translucency of the yarn exudes a degree of light and color unseen in his prior geometric constructions. Alois previously studied degrees of pliability and translucency in aluminum mesh. In a site-specific installation at a collector’s home, he manipulated unpainted mesh into undulating waves to cover a skylight. Skylight (Fig. 7) also operates as both a retainer and a filter of light – the degrees of which vary according to the density of the mesh and time of day. One can witness the pliability and translucency of one strand of yarn in the new work as it acts as a retainer, filter and transmitter of reflective images. With yarn, Alois discovers a novel way to play with line and its response to light and color.

If Morris’s mirrored cubes and Sandback’s lines respond to their physical surroundings, then it is the surroundings that in fact respond to Alois’s screen drawings – both viewer and space. The wall supporting the window screens can be regarded as a canvas or projector for which the work comes to life. The opposite is true with Morris’s mirrored cubes, where the reflective glass acts as the projector for the surrounding imagery. I view Alois’s work as somewhat analogous to John Cage’s understanding of Robert Rauschenberg’s 1951 White Paintings. I see the white wall as “airports for the lights, shadows and particles” and more – color and line.[11] With Morris, as with Sandback, we inhabit the work, whereas with Alois’s we – along with the environment – activate the screen drawings in order to allow the work to inhabit the space.

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(Fig. 8) Quilt 5, 2015. basswood and ink. Image retrieved from cristintierney.com

The physical object – yarn, mesh, metal and wooden frames – as well as viewer, come together to produce a transfer of images from one surface to the next. The works fundamental attachment to its environment is not a bolt or hinge, but the reflection of light and color – while fleeting and in flux. Alois’s prior works, such as his Polychromatic Structure series, have a similar preoccupation with shadow (Fig. 8). The basswood rod lines extend beyond its material presence in the form of shadows, producing a doubling effect. It can be difficult to decipher where a rod ends and its shadow begins; so much so that the shadows often appear cognitively stronger than the rods.

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(Fig. 9) Detail from Untitled, 2017

With the new work, light seeps through the colored yarn allowing a more optically complex response than mere shadow reflections. Light – whether natural or artificial – affects the vibrancy of the colors and the intensity of the reflection marked upon the wall. With careful viewing, when the light is strong enough, the color of the yarn faintly reflects off the surface of the wall. Light also has the effect of altering the original colors of the yarn. When standing perpendicular to one of the window screens, the diagonal alternating lines of orange and blue yarn read as magenta. It is as if you are playing with gelatin color filters – shuffling the cards to produce new hues. Yet, here, shuffling occurs within the pedestrian space. The lines and colors do not “hold as shape,” literally or pictorially, rather their presence depends upon the production of multiple and ever changing “presences.”

The transfer of images and which image become visible at what moment is indicative upon where the viewer is standing and how the viewer chooses to activate the work. This is not the anamorphosis illusion of Hans Holbein’s The Ambassadors (1533) nor are we opening up a cabinet door of Rauschenberg’s Short Circuit (1955) to reveal a Jasper Johns Flag (or rather a Strutevant reproduction of one). By altering the position of just one of Alois’s screens – the viewer experiences a screen drawing from a nuanced perspective – its negative is exposed, the color shifts, a shadow expands or maybe the image is overlain by a shadow or the screen of another.

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(Fig. 10) Image of the incomplete totem construction in Alois’s studio

And then there is the pending totem construction. Window screens are welded together to create what Alois refers to as “vitrines.” Rectangular cubes, in two sizes, are made out of metal frames, stacked one on top of the other, in an alternating vertical and horizontal 12-foot pattern that, in minimalist fashion, could hypothetically have infinite iterations. Two screens are inserted on two of the longer planes in each vitrine, creating overlapping patterns when looking in all directions. The yarn designs are imprinted on the screen directly behind, below, or on top of it, while the accumulation of patterns are embedded in the form of shadows on adjacent walls. By calling them vitrines, Alois draws attention to the “empty” space within, highlighting its ability to trap light and produce multi-filter viewing experiences. Like Sandback’s virtual planes, the vitrines confront standard notions of inside/outside and positive/negative spatial interactions.

Shapes merge and colors blend to produce new phenomenological encounters. The physical overlapping of the screens further emphasizes the relationship between a yarn drawing in the salon environment and its shadow reflecting off the white surface of the wall. However, with the totem, the screen drawings are not just in an ongoing conversation with the wall and its physical and temporal surroundings, but there is also a relentless conversation between screens.

When viewing Alois’s work, you are always witnessing an object in flux. Orientation is variable, whether the viewer walks around a colossal Grid Structure or stands still, watching rods change from yellow to turquoise as a multicolored kinetic cube slowly turns in space. Over subsequent studio visits the new work continues to evolve. Not just because of Alois’s progress, but because the sun comes and goes, and the florescent studio lights turn off and on as we treat the screens like shadow puppets.

The “we” always remains crucial to the artist’s practice. In the presence of Alois’s new work, we both witness and engage in collaborations – collaboration between fiber and color, fiber and mesh, viewer and screen, screen and light, and so on. Yet, the most fruitful, might be the collaboration of minds – between artist and scholar, and scholar and scholar.

Taylor

 
[1] Robert Morris, “Notes on Sculpture, Part II,” Artforum 5, no. 2 (October 1966): 20-23, 22.
[2] Clement Greenberg, “Modernist Painting,” in Charles Harrison and Paul Wood’s Art in Theory, 1900-2000: An Anthology of Changing Ideas (Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub, 2003), 754-760, 756. In this essay, Greenberg refers to modernist painting as art that is in “pure form,” the notion of art as autonomous and self-referential. He asserts that the condition of the modernist painting surface is whole and complete in itself and judged only in its own terms.
[3] Michael Fried, “Art and Objecthood,” in Minimal Art: A Critical Anthology (Dutton, 1968) 116-147, 120. Fried adheres to Greenberg’s ideology of modernist painting in his critic of minimalism, which he refers to as “literalism.”
[4] Donald Judd, “Specific Objects,” Arts Yearbook 8 (1965): 74-82, repr. in Donald Judd, Complete Writings 1959-1975 (Halifax and New York: The Press of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design and New York University Press, 1975), 181-189, 182.
[5] Fried, 120.
[6] Fred Sandback, “Remarks on my Sculpture, 1966-86,” in Fred Sandback, exh. cat. (Vaduz: Kunstmusuem Liechtenstein, 2005), 120. Originally published in English and German in Fred Sandback Sculpture 1966-1986, exh. cat. (Munich; Galerie Fred Jahn, 1986), 12-19.
[7] Fred Sandback quoted in Stephen Prokopoff, “An Interview: Fred Sandback and Stephen Prokopoff” (1985), rep. Fred Sandback, exh. cat. (Vaduz: Kunstmuseum Liechtenstein; Edinburgh: Fruitmarket Gallery; Graz: Neue Galerie am Landesmuseum Joanneum; Bordeaux: CAPC Musée d’art contemporain; Ostfildern-Ruit: Hatje Cantz, 2005), 111.
[8] John Rajchman, “Fred Sandback’s Lines of Thought,” in Fred Sandback, exh. cat. (Göttingen: Steidl; New York: David Zwirner, 2009), 14.
[9] Fred Sandback, “Remarks on my Sculpture, 1966-86,” in Fred Sandback, exh. cat. (Vaduz: Kunstmusuem Liechtenstein, 2005), 120. Originally published in English and German in Fred Sandback Sculpture 1966-1986, exh. cat. (Munich; Galerie Fred Jahn, 1986), 12-19.
[10] Lisa Le Feuvre, “Simple Facts,” in Fred Sandback: Vertical Constructions, exh. cat. Fred Sandback: Vertical Constructions (New York, NY: David Zwirner Books, 2017), 41-47, 42.
[11] John Cage, “On Robert Rauschenberg, Artist, and His Work,” in Silence : Lectures and Writings (Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1961), 102.

Mechanisms of Perception