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