Review

Visions of Airy Confines

Ross Rudel
Clouds
Angles Gallery, Santa Monica
September 9 – October 15, 2005

Gregory Kucera
Always As It Is Today
Angles Gallery, Santa Monica
September 9 – October 15, 2005
Neha Choksi

 

Ross Rudel, <em>#392 (Cloud)</em>, 2005.

Ross Rudel’s woodcarvings of cloud puffs and Gregory Kucera’s photographic relief objects feel like earnest attempts to measure and condense the nature of clouds. Both projects, on exhibit concurrently, beg the question of what is a cloud, and anyone can arrive at a variety of notions of how these works are nothing like clouds. Yet,
if you could only express yourself through color-stained, polished wood and needed to demonstrate “cloud” you would feel blessed to have Rudel’s fluid handling of color, tone and not-right morphology. And if you had to tease out a sense of the deep atmospherics of clouds from no more than a few millimeters off a wall, you could do worse than Kucera’s lenticular experiments. Both choose a path to gaining knowledge of the cloudy masses via perception, but in their choice of haptic or optic means, respectively, they arrive at quite different resolutions.1

Coming upon Ross Rudel’s room of clouds in the Angles annex space, its walls exuding small carefully polished wood sculptures bulging with round knobs all over, you might feel transformed into a giant child. Rudel, it turns out, has been rescuing fallen trees destined for firewood from LA side-yards and converting them into miniature cloud icons, part primitive-doodle and part Ur-cloud.

Ross Rudel, <em>#392 (Cloud)</em> (viewed from above), 2005.

By displaying them serially at just over eye level, aligned within reach of the body—the eye and the hand—the clouds cease to be seen from their customary vantage. This lowering of the heavens triggers your hands’ unfulfilled impulse to pick up the clouds,
to run fingers over the ridges and surface undulations, to worry the knots—and this in turn coalesces into an understanding of the artist’s time spent consolidating the cloud. (It almost makes one wish all the shavings were strewn on the floor to see.)

Inscribed with the immediacy of the
artist’s dexterous touch, the wood-clouds evoke the body that created them, thus directing attention to their own body, their woodiness and very material presence—the haptic in glorious play, as opposed to the optical “mind’s eye.” The title of the show claims these as clouds, but these objects,
in their equanimity and equilibrium, are
the antithesis of clouds: wood-patterned anti-clouds with weight, opacity, and stability. Clouds are wind-pushed fugitives, gravity-defying drops of water and light- transforming densities of air. Despite having a visual reality, clouds escape settled surface; they cannot be touched, measured or fixed. In Rudel’s vision of clouds there is absolute grave presence instead of light and void. The sustained contour mapping, gridding, and excavating implied by surface protuberances and undulations is ironically a small-scale replica of the land-engineer or grading architect’s laborious method. It is as if the hydraulic mechanics of the insubstantial heavens have been transformed into the gravitational vectors of substantial earth.

Each piece ranges in shade from a warm white to a smoky black, yet they all share
the warmth of a sunset or a fiery explosion. A couple of bleached pieces were smoked
on the underside, neatly evoking both the wood substance and the shadowed cloud. A standout is #392 (Cloud) (2005), a blackened piece, heavy with downward “facing” black pods, radiating fiery red overhead as if from within its bowl. Its sharp flat surface, higher than any ordinary person’s height, is deeply pigmented with solid red, a clean minimal stain that spills without. In its shape and use of pigment, it looks like a voluptuous Louise Bourgeois piece, sliced and dusted with an early Anish Kapoor pigment pile. Through clever positioning, the space of the sculpture exceeds its mass, spilling its red reflections, not unlike our experience of the excrescence of rain.

Gregory Kucera, <em>Solaris</em> (detail of bottom panel), 2004.

If Rudel’s sculptures claim a territory that can only be won with slow-moving skill
and patience, then Kucera’s photographs occupy a space created by an eye transfixed by emotion. I am reminded of Protagoras’ statement: Man is the measure of all things, of what is, that it is, and of what is not, that it is not. In a way, Rudel’s sculptures have taken up the first half of that statement and Kucera’s work the second. Clouds are both “what is” and “what is not,” activating in our imagination simultaneously the terrestrial landscape and the celestial void, the quattrocento figure and ground. Clouds are signs signifying something supernatural and quite otherworldly, in excess of the capacity of the world to understand.2 And Kucera appropriately employs them as secular signs to convert us, the viewer, into the figure in terrestrial reality.3 In our secular heaven of Los Angeles, there are no putti sitting atop the clouds; with no certainty of a single god, we have relinquished ideas of a single perspective.

Gregory Kucera, <em>Gas 3</em>, 2005.

While the camera has directly inherited 
the lessons of linear perspective from
the Renaissance, Kucera’s photographs inevitably acknowledge the institution of perspectival concerns as well as the eventual dismantling of such by 20th century artists. While always picturing some low-lying mist cloud, the photographs are not resolute in showing the same patch of sky (in contrast to his video, q.v. below). The camera seems to rove, spying among the clouds, birds and branches here, houses there, open
sky yonder. One gets the sense of light
and shadow nudging vast voids. All the photographs were taken on one cloudy day from the artist’s house in Highland Park, and thus the entire show can be construed as an objective correlative to the chiaroscuro of his rarified emotions.4 Kucera flirts dangerously close to this occlusive longing; the palpable mood is a desire for fog and gas and other misty beings to subdue time, to slow the mind, to attend to ambience, to observe bird and branch, rather than to tell a story. The forward drive of a narrative needs must be lacking in a space where, as the title exhorts, “always as it is today.”5

In those photographs that show only sky, such as Gas 3 (2005), there is neither specific locale, nor time. There is no horizon, no ground-line, no datum, and no perspective. It is as if the photograph is made from within the mist cloud, as if one could slice
a sectional sliver of a cloud and insert
it between two sheets of cast acrylic. To intensify and complicate that illusion, Kucera has machine carved the front sheet into a variegated lens, with thin parallel grooves
of varying depth etched over the areas of
the image that he would like, literally, to highlight. The grooves catch and refract
the ambient light, thus creating an unequal dispersal and distribution of light effects over the surface of the entire photograph. Kucera’s optical tool reconverts the flattening achieved by the initial photographic lens; by translating his frame into a substantive play of light, he fragments any commitment to a single point of view.

This inventive tool, although deployed to negate some effects of the camera bound by its rules of linear perspective, is a little too uncritically deployed at times. The size and direction of the etched stroke is keyed either mechanically or arbitrarily to the tones of the photograph behind it. In the case
of the photographs with the birds and the branches, the path of least resistance leads to merely etching over the dark areas set out by the bird and branch. That the technique is applied indiscriminately to a good many of Kucera’s photographs is proved by its use on the long exposure photographs hung above the gallerist’s desk. [One of which, Night for Day (Cathy’s House) (2004), was superbly humorous in its spatial and relative scale tricks.] I would rather be allowed to imagine that this technique is specially deployed for the cloud pictures, or that it might be altered substantially to reveal something more about the content of two rather different bodies of work.

The most successfully integrated assembly was on the pair of Solaris photographs 
in which the ground-plane is marked by homes perched amid the verdant hills of Los Angeles. Up close, indeed, the topographic surface of the acrylic almost resembles something of Rudel’s pieces. In general, this sense of non-integral assembly of photo 
and lens disappears as one backs away from them and the imprecisely machined strokes dissolve into one another and into their intended atmospherics. They demand some distance yet yield their secrets up close—not that different from seeing versus being within a wet cloud.

Gregory Kucera, <em>Solaris</em>, 2004.


Kucera also displayed a single-channel video, titled Vertigo (2005), in which houses and trees rotate around the edges of the screen, framing a center occupied by a changeable bit of disco-tinted cloud. If the photographs animate a dormant conversation about light in photography, the video is a strange experiment on the intersection of gravity and levity, lightness and light. Both ask questions about how we see and experience the world. Standing in front of this uncannily tinted mist swirling about the center, revealing and concealing the houses and trees atop the now-right-side-up, or under the now- upside-down hill, one experiences falling horizontally through a hole in the sky.

As if to enhance this visual thrill, the film eschews durational equivalence, and is sped up and colorized. Questions arise about the centrality of vision, even as it is obfuscated by scudding clouds and renewed by a parading rainbow of colors.6 Where is the artist, or for that matter, where am I, the viewer, located? Am I looking out from within the camera or am I blissfully one with the revolving mist? What complicates the reception of the video is that even while you feel yourself falling horizontally, you catch yourself easily: the speed and motion of the camera and the rate of change of color are both predictable—you feel in control. So, who, then, is experiencing vertigo? Issues of physical control are latent in Kucera’s photographs and video when understood as articulating a process where seeing is performed in space and time, whether by the viewer or the camera.7

For Rudel, seeing is a back-to-basics ethic
of visualizing the world through effort, of gaining knowledge through one’s hands. It
is an individual vision that hopes to find a reflection in the viewer’s sympathetic gaze. It makes no judgement about the nature of that gaze. Kucera’s work preempts and fractures that gaze, contesting that perceptual knowledge. If Rudel visualizes clouds as icons whose presence is, perhaps, revered, Kucera’s synthetic play of light indexes their ephemeral effect. In the past century, artists’ clouds may have lost their ability to evoke the symbolic symmetry of heaven and earth in Christian iconography, but they have gained presence as abstract placeholders or bearers of our subjectivity, whether experienced in pop, sublime, abstract or scientific ways. In their modest way, thankfully, neither Rudel’s nor Kucera’s clouds disembody the viewer’s gaze. Our subjectivity retains its phenomenological dimension.

Neha Choksi is an artist living in Los Angeles.

Footnotes

  1. On Riegl’s idea of haptic and optic: “The human perceptual relationship with the objective world, Riegl believed, was a production of the eye, the touch, and
the mind. This relationship passed through historical phases, oscillating between an emphasis on vision and touch, subjective constitution and objective presentation. Haptic, or tactile, periods (emphasizing touch, linearity, and shape) alternated with optic periods (emphasizing vision, color, light, and shadow)…Both touch and vision enlisted the collaboration of the mind in transforming sense perceptions from isolated experiential units into a sustained awareness of the continuous contours and borders of objects.” Michael Gubser, “Time and History in Alois Riegl’s Theory of Perception” in Journal of the History of Ideas (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005), v.66 #3, pp. 470-71.
  2. As noted by David Reed, “Books: Best of 2002,”
Artforum, December 2002. He adds, “Damisch shows
how the pictograph “cloud,” at the moment of its
appearance in the works of Mantegna and Correggio, came
to designate everything that the new painting system failed
to grasp or failed to acknowledge: mystical experience, the aleatory, the infinite, the void, formless form.”
  3. Ian Verstegen, in a book review, writes, “Wearing his structural-semiotic methodology on his sleeve, Damisch seeks simply to understand the sign-quality of the cloud, which he holds between slashes to remind the reader
that clouds per se are not his interest. His hunch is that
the cloud exists in Western painting as a complement to
the terrestrial reality ordered via perspective. One needs
the other to have a full, oppositional meaning.” Review
at http://mitpress2.mit.edu/e-journals/Leonardo/reviews/apr2004/theory_damisch.html. Updated
April 2004. Accessed October 27, 2005. Book reviewed: Hubert Damisch, A Theory of /Cloud/:Toward a History of Painting. Trans. Janet Lloyd (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002).
  4. In a way Kucera is updating Stieglitz’s unmanipulated portraits of clouds in the sky, which were a corollary to Stieglitz’s emotional experience or a response to what he was visually experiencing.
  5. Yes, the “today” may also refer to the day on which Kucera took his photographs.
  6. The rainbow range of colors led me to thoughts of Goethe’s response to Newton’s theory of color and light, and Turner’s response to the debate. I am especially thinking about J. M. W. Turner’s late and ill-received works Shade and darkness—the evening of the Deluge and Light and colour (Goethe’s theory)—the morning after the deluge, which were painted in an embrace of anti-Newtonian color theories. If Kucera was participating in this debate, I am sorry not to have overheard his part in it.
  7. As van Alphen has argued sight is temporalized when it is “performed by a sense organ, that is part of a body.” Ernst van Alphen, Art in Mind: How Contemporary Images Shape Thought (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005), p. 88.
Further Reading