Luisa Kazanas:
Origins Unknown

Nick Sousanis

"There is no such thing as a one-sided coin," Neil Gaiman.

That is you can't have the male without the female, you can't have light without casting shadows, beauty stands in stark contrast to horror, and for everything created, something else must be destroyed in the process. In her wonderfully complex solo show "Origins Unknown" at the Cranbrook Art Museum, artist Luisa Kazanas dances on the coin's edge between dualities in each of her wildly diverse pieces in the exhibition. This is truly a museum show, not just because of the wide range of mediums on display (including sculpture, photography, painting, taxidermy, and electronics, to name a few), but also because it offers a complete and rich look into an artist's singular vision.

In her own words, her work is, "A bit of a Victorian plus mid-century modern plus Kubrickian 2001 train wreck." Kazanas' own description defies description, calling to mind the following Zen koan: "Shuzan held out his short staff and said, 'If you call this a short staff, you oppose its reality. If you do not call it a short staff, you ignore the fact. Now what do you wish to call this?'" By creating objects, Kazanas has given form to ideas and made tangible feelings hard to put one's finger upon.

Finding the right entry point to discuss Kazanas' work is not easy, for they are all distinct, yet each one helps inform one's experience with another. Perhaps then the best place to start is with the most accessible, as far as its immediate beauty goes. This happens to be the last piece in the show, solely occupying the final room. "Ellipse", as its name states, is an elliptically-shaped, large black wall mounted sculpture, which contains within its thick resin surface numerous small multi-colored LED lights. (The effect is a bit like insects trapped in amber, only in this case the LEDs project their own light to pierce the black surface.) The lights are scattered across the elliptical surface mimicking a view of the night sky. The lights turn on and off, in a non-repetitive sequence, creating a pattern of constellations for a moment, before wiping clean to start anew. As long as we may watch, the pattern might seem to be the same twice, but it never is quite.

"Ellipse" is to be sure a thing of beauty, it entrances in the way that the real night sky does. But its very beauty points out something insidious - this is a collection of colored lights in a hunk of resin. At a time when we are able to learn more and more about what goes on outside our atmosphere, our instinctual connection to the night sky is being lost. The view from Brooklyn (as in any city) reveals few stars, the depth of the sky obscured by the artificial light we've created. It is thus through artifice - Kazanas' piece - that we can reconnect, and think of what we've lost. As she puts its, "Ellipse" arises from a, "desperation about wanting to recreate the night sky." *

"Ellipse" deals subtly with preservation, capturing a feeling, an experience, that we are no longer able to have. Kazanas engages this aspect of preservation more directly in a series of sculptural dioramas. Sitting atop elegant, curvaceously modern, Eero Saarinen inspired pedestals, these hearken back to Victorian era dioramas though encapsulated within what can best be described as the glass bubble of George Jetson's favorite mode of transportation. ("Victorian-mid-century modern, Kubrickian 2001!?") Two of these exotic displays contain birds that could have been on display in Audubon's time, except for the fact that they are outfitted in ceramic space suits with glass bubble helmets, and the third piece contains a miniature frozen waterfall. The pieces are a picture of our progress - we are effectively destroying the habitats of these birds, yet our ingenuity has helped craft them a way to survive despite that. Kazanas notes that these are songbirds - and as such encased in glass, as if in space - a place where no one can hear you sing. These space arks could stand in for zoos - prosthetic habitats - a means of survival for the endangered, yet an inescapable cage for the inhabitants. However, although they are apparently surviving - what life is left to them?

Many of Kazanas' pieces confront concepts of duality more literally. She visually depicts twinning, creating mirrored halves that are almost the same as one another, but not quite. One large painting is a Rorschach-like pattern, appearing at first to be perfectly symmetrical, yet on further inspection the differences become clear. This theme is further addressed with a large photograph of a double-headed mirrored goat and mountain. In "Doublehappiness," she's created a cast urethane sculpture of a creature made from the headless halves of two babies, sharing a single belly button, revealing quite prominently both the male and female genitalia. The two halves are almostthe same, but not quite. With no mouths to feed or cry, this twinned creature is all about pleasure - though armless and headless, apparently unable to appreciate or interact with its own happy state.

Throughout all of her work, Kazanas deals with both the pleasure and the horror of seeing. The aesthetic attraction she creates helps balance the concept's often repulsive force. "Lady" is a sculpture of an eyeless Mary-esque woman whose head to toe hair is laced with ever open eyes. Delicate moiré patterns are created through the intersection of the ridges of hair, the curves of her form, and the shadows they cast. The theme of vision is most prominent in a piece called "spud boy" essential a potato-y form with eyes all over it resting on a pillow. She describes this creature as being exposed to the "terror of seeing." This helpless figure with no arms, legs, or any means of interacting with the world, is at the same time forced to stare ever outward, a silent and inert but captive watcher. This perhaps is the heart of her work: As a maker of art objects she works with the pleasure of seeing, yet as an empathic observer of our culture, our progress, she captures the terror of seeing as well. Her objects then are both seductive and terrifying at the same time. Like spud boy, we can't help but look, nor can we do anything as the march of progress continues unimpeded.

She not only seduces her audience through the visual, but through humor as well. There is something delightfully odd about birds in spacesuits, or hazmat outfitted men, with their zippers down (their manhood and hearts caught awkwardly in the process). These are appealing and quite disturbing at the same time. Spud boy might be seen as a cute play on the eyes of a potato or an all-seeing Old Testament cherubim, while at the same time as being a reference to a helpless, immobile quadriplegic. A professor of Kazanas' once described her work like, "a smile with a knife at your back." In the face of horrors, she's winking at us - her odd sense of humor provides strange comfort.

In all of these words above, I've made little mention of how she made these things. In truth, Kazanas has made herself seemingly at home in any medium, in effect making her craft so good as to be invisible. Unfettered by concerns of construction, her ideas and visual imagery are able to come to the forefront of the experience.

The show represents a big step for Kazanas, and a great show of support from Cranbrook. Museum Director Gregory Wittkopp states in the press release that "It will not be long before Kazanas is an established figure in contemporary art and we are proud that we can play a leading role in furthering her career." This show has a good, long run at Cranbrook. This by no means suggests that one should wait to see it. In fact, go early, and allow some time to digest the images and ideas within - and then go again! Because your second viewing will be affected by that first visit, it will be like the first time, only not quite. And that's exactly what Kazanas wants to happen.

* I spoke with Kazanas and viewed the show shortly before the winter solstice - that is the shortest day of the year, after which the days begin to get longer again. We spoke of the significance of the sun and the stars throughout human history, in her words the, "Activity of looking at the stars is one of our deepest and most profound acts." In cities of lights that block out the stars, in a world where we don't know where our food comes from, we tend to forget this essential connection to our roots. Kazanas' works helps remind us, as she reminds herself: "I know what happens to the days because of the light in my studio." This story is seeing print at the start of a new revolution around the sun, and the days are already beginning to get noticeably longer.


Luisa Kazanas: Origins Unknown. The First Solo Museum Exhibition Of Work by the Artist will be held at the Cranbrook Art Museum from December 17, 2004 through March 26, 2005

© 2002