Artists: Werner Feiersinger, Gary Kuehn
The exhibition Intrinsic is a confrontation between two sculptural practices, which ostensibly make use of a pared-down or even minimalistic formal vocabulary but upon closer observation assume positions that run counter to, and even contradict, Minimalism and Constructivism. The works of Werner Feiersinger and Gary Kuehn are characterized by a subtle subversion—albeit taking very different forms—of the premises of Minimalism, whether the ideal of a purely geometric form (basic form), a lack of reference anything beyond the artwork, or a rejection of expression, narrativity, and metaphor. The works of the two artists are not dominated by an inherent formal principle that forces its way to the surface, but by an intrinsic element of disruption and irritation that challenges the authority and cohesion of Formalism.
Instead of simply presenting viewers with static art objects, Intrinsic is a selection of works by Feiersinger and Kuehn that engage them through a spatial, situative constellation that is even almost theatrical. The works inherently convey a form of semantic dissonance and agitation of content that challeng viewers to take what they see a conceptual “step” further, in temporal and processual terms (Kuehn) as well as semantic and metaphorical terms (Feiersinger).
Werner Feiersinger’s sculptures consist of a just a few simple forms and elements that have been brought into precarious balance. Geometric insinuations or possible references to architectural forms are by no means to be understood as a blanket affirmation of certain formal ideals. The works cannot be reduced to their morphological structure or phenomenological presence. As spatial-situative sculptural scenarios, they instead open up a field imbued with potential connotative impact. Feiersinger’s works often refer to spatial situations and experiences that have their origins in the unconscious rather than in memory. In this sense, one could almost describe the branch-like supporting structure of his ladder-object Untitled (2013), which is also found in some of his other works, as a constructive archetype. The form of the branch thus takes on multiple readings: as a “principle of construction,” as an embodiment of the opposites of solidity and fragility, and also as a reference to the tension between a natural growth and something constructued or culturally produced.
At first glance the ladder-object has the appearance of an elegant, constructive composition. But upon closer examination it is revealed as a quite precarious constellation of two ladders that have been leaned against each other, connected only be the board lying across two rungs. Not only are the statics of the sculpture questionable, but the spatial-ontological status of the object also has an indefinite character. Feiersinger has consciously opted for the thinness of the ladder-like supports and the horizontal board, in order to allow the sculptural constellation to take on the appearance of a three-dimensional line drawing or construction sketch when viewed from a distance. He chooses to make the sculpture approximate a conceptual image, which leads the viewer into an imaginary realm of action—a space of potential sculptural variability as well as a field charged with semiotic meaning and connotative references.
Through a subtle use of material and surfaces Feiersinger gives his sculptures an almost individual appearance. The fact that he manually paints his objects—one can see the brush strokes when looking at the works up close—he counterbalances the stringent structure of the sculptures by giving them a personal, even hand-made touch. It would certainly be an exaggeration to describe his works as evincing a painterly understanding of color and working of surfaces. Nevertheless, this hand application of paint is significant in the sense of making a “mark,” of enacting something on the object. Any kind of material fetish—such as the Minimalist embrace of industrial materials and their anonymous, impersonal appeal—is to be avoided. The work is allowed to have an incomplete, or even vulnerable quality. By no means is it to seem inapproachable and hermetically turned inward, a work “unto its own.” Spatio-sculptural opposites, such as solidness verses fragility or closedness (of form) verses openness (of constructive principles), are asserted in the work as antagonistic forces, which leave it to the viewer to conceptually take the sculpture a step further.
In the work Untitled (2010) Feiersinger employs two blue-painted square steel grates minimally connected and forming a freestanding cube, onto which a Plexiglas tube seems to have been placed. Oscillating between a two-dimensional and a three-dimensional presence in the space, this sculpture also proves precarious in terms of its statics. Not only are the steel grates joined in just two places, but they have also been positioned slightly askew, so that the constellation seems spatially instable and appears to tilt in a certain direction. The supposed glass, set into a semicircle depression on the upper edges of each grate, upon closer examination turns out to be a sheet of PVC, a low quality and cheap material used for vinyl-strip curtains in factories, for example. Here an aspect of Feiersinger’s sociological and stylistic influences comes to the fore, which is not necessary obvisous in his work but remains of fundamental importance. Not just Minimalism, and later Modernism, but also aspects of Arte Povera can be discerned in Feiersinger’s aesthetic practice. In its formal “weakness,” the slightly sagging sheet of PVC poses an intentional contrast to the apparently geometric and minimalistic form of the grid-like object.
In the work Untitled (2010) Feiersinger also operates with an element of visual seduction. He plays both with the muted sensuality of the blue grid-like structure and also with the idiosyncratic appearance of the PVC object created by its shininess and transparency. Only when one nears the work, does it then reveal its instability, appearing as an unsteady but seemingly sympathetic counterpart. A lack of stability and a make-shift impression are not deficits; they simply make up the individual characteristics of this sculptural protagonist. Through these ruptures and inconsistencies in his material vocabulary Feiersinger opens up a libidinal and playful dimension of sculptural seeing.
Color—the striking, almost glowing blue—takes on a particular, even eccentric function in Untitled (2010). Usually Feiersinger employs primer to paint his sculptural compositions, paints that are quite neutral. Untitled (2010) is the only work so far that he “permits” to have such a strong color presence. The choice of this self-confident blue was purely intuitive, arising from a mixture of memory and metaphor. The intense, almost happy seeming color underscores a quality of independence, whereby the rigid grid elements thus take on the character of a playground structure with model-like dimensions. All potential functionality is subsumed by the “geometric expressiveness” of the sculptural actor. Both the expressive potential of simple forms and, to an even greater extent, the “expressiveness” of industrial materials form a direct link to Gary Kuehn and his process-based approach that goes beyond minimalist or expressionist doctrines.
A larger number of Gary Kuehn’s works—which were forerunners of the emerging Postminimalism and Process Art of the 1960s—take a spatial and situational approach. In other words, they entail both time- and process-based elements as well as content-driven, metaphorical components. The works seem like excerpts of a process, sequence, or chain of events that enacted through or by means of the given sculptural object. Despite its solid or, in more precise terms, solidified form, the final work seems to be striving towards a shift in form, as if it had an inherent power to effect its own morphological transformation from within. Gary Kuehn developed his aesthetic formal language in a reaction both to Minimalism and waning Abstract Expressionism. He was neither interested in the authoritative and absolute claims of non-relational, minimalisitc form, nor did he wish to submit to the self-imposed dogma of avoiding reference and negating gesture and expression, through which proponents of Minimalism sought to distance themselves from Abstract Expressionism.
Kuehn’s focus is a concept of art that enables him to explore questions of geometry and form while also reflecting on and sculpturally negotiating aspects of expression, human experience, sensation, and self-perception. His aesthetic approach is based on a certain idea about relationality—not in a formal or compositional sense but in a manner analogous to human and interpersonal experiences—which he understands as the relationship of objects to one another and their potential means of “expression” or “attitudes.” For Kuehn, human experiences and mental states, such as hesitation, failure, shame, or powerlessness, are not subjective external elements, which must be withheld from art to keep it pure, as Minimalism propagates. Instead he views these states and feelings as potential forms of expression, as the “modes of being” of sculptural materials.
Crate Piece (1965) presents itself to the viewer as something more than a simple readymade transport crate that encloses or contains another box. The external crate is what makes the internal cube visible and recognizable as an aesthetic object. The roughness of the square wooden crate is what allows the closed form of the inner box, which is painted a glossy green, to appear smooth and hermetic in a minimalist manner. However, Kuehn is not so much interested in the individual status of the respective containers as in their relationship to one another, their reciprocal semantization and “transference.” Not simply the difference between the two cube forms but their “relationship” determines their significance and aesthetic status. Is the external container simply a transport crate for the “art object” within or does the wooden crate form an intended spatial delineation, a kind of prison for the cube? Is the external container shutting in the inner object, or is the inner cube trying to force its way out? Precisely these kinds of tensions—between hiding and revealing, surrounding or filling in, protecting or imprisoning—form the dramatic focus of their sculptural constellations. Kuehn does not hone in on trying to portray a certain relationship between the three-dimensional protagonists; instead he focuses our attention on the intersculptural interplay, the network of sculptural-relational interactions that are exclusively articulated in the viewing process and in the moment when metaphorical attributions and investments of meaning take place.
If read as an ironic art historical commentary, Crate Piece is a work in which Kuehn manages to respectfully present a cube, the “purest” minimalistic form, while simultaneously undermining its authority. The authority of the cube is preserved, in the truest sense of the word, but the cube is simultaneously reigned in and put in its place. From the very beginning Gary Kuehn’s works were distinguished by a substantial knowledge of materials, an understanding for working with wood, steel, and fiberglass. As a student, he worked on construction sites (also as a roofer), and this hands-on experience with the physical quality of materials and elements of construction were a major influence on his approach to sculpture. In Kuehn’s work, his interest in the industrial was not reflected in a type of material fetish (as in Minimalism). Instead, he was interested in industrial processes as physical, form-giving, and modulating processes. The alterability of form— through the effects of gravity or attraction, for example—became a key element of his aesthetic strategy. His works are therefore often defined by antagonistic forces; minimalistically intoned simple and geometric forms (like the cube and rectangle) constitute the basic raw materials for the “performance” of mechanical forces and physical causes and effects. For example, in Twist Piece (1987) two bars of steel are bound together in such a way that from a distance they suggest two wires twisted around each other by hand. Kuehn is clearly working with an antagonism, the contradiction between the hardness and rigidity of the steel and the apparent ease with which it was manipulated. Twist Piece reveals itself not as a sculptural statement or discrete object but as a fleeting snapshot of a process of something shifting and being reformed and deformed. Although his sculptures always have solid form, Kuehn is interested in the moment of transition and the provisional. The final, i.e. solidified, work — the intertwined rods of steel — subtly refer to the process of production. It also points to the potential subsequent state, to a process of becoming, and thereby suggests a trajectory aimed beyond the immanent time frame.
In the works of both Kuehn and Feiersinger the initial clarity and simplicity of abstract form opens up into contradictions and antagonisms. Clearly referring to the categories of subjectivity and expression the artists create a space of paradoxical gesture and object-like, metaphorical dialogue (Kuehn) as well as a connotative investment of meaning and sematic shift (Feiersinger). The meaning of the individual works emerges in a relational and situative context, in relation to the viewer, who does not “read” or decode the work but semantically takes the work further, then bringing out the narrative inherent in the work. Ultimately the artists achieve a subversion of the roles typically assigned within and observational dispositive: instead of mere interpretive “seeing” of the work, they enable the viewer to assume a libidinous and imaginative perspective, in which one’s own life is used as a reference in the process and is then understood as essential to seeing.
Text: David Komary
Translation: Laura Schleussner