Paul Kass: New Sculpture

at Beret International, through November 23

Jonah Freeman

at Ten in One, through November 23

By Fred Camper

Paul Kass fell into carpentry while in art school and makes his living by it now. He doesn’t want his sculptures, among them ten new ones at Beret International, to be seen solely as expressions of his profession, yet he acknowledges that there are important connections. His works are made mostly of common construction materials, he uses carpentry as a way of learning about them, and he’s inspired by repetitive labor. But while his sculptures may look vaguely functional, they’re not, and there’s often a wry humor in their nonfunctionality. What one might not expect is that they can be oddly moving.

White Pine consists of six wooden four-by-fours that stretch, towerlike, from the floor to the ceiling; adjustable screws connect the main part with the white base, permitting variable floor-to-ceiling distances. Though they resemble support columns, they’re obviously too thin to provide permanent support. To add to the joke, each face of each four-by-four has 27 white disks protruding from the otherwise raw wood; from a distance they’re reminiscent of track lighting or dressing-room lights.

An edgy, obsessive repetition distinguishes White Pine, with its six pillars and its sets of 27 disks, two sets on each pillar unaccountably larger than the other two. But most interesting is the fact that Kass uses his hands to try to efface the natural variations of the human touch–the disks are evenly spaced, and the white is a flat laminate–while retaining the variations that are the results of the materials and the room: the natural grain of the wood and the different lengths to which the connecting screws are adjusted. The idea expressed by Josef Albers and others that an artist should be profoundly aware of his materials has been replaced by a concept more self-effacing: while Kass’s overall shapes are articulate and expressive, he often leaves his raw materials alone, and the details come from their random qualities.

Since the artist has added relatively little to White Pine, where does its artfulness reside? The towers seem to gain from their placement together, but since they’re for sale individually, Kass can’t control future installations. Functions are hinted at but unfulfilled: this is fine art, meant to be looked at rather than used. In fact the way the work denies the functionality suggested by its repeating forms is what gives it much of its impact, making it paradoxical, inscrutable. But there’s also an odd beauty in the blank faces or empty eyes of the white disks. On view here are not Kass’s emotions but the way light reflects off white laminate or rough wood, recalling the ethos behind Rauschenberg’s early “white paintings” or newspapers covered in black.

Kass was born in Chicago, in 1967, and lives here now, but he grew up mostly in Saint Louis, where his parents moved into a “beautiful old home with incredible workmanship” in a historic neighborhood. He recalls an early obsession with masking tape: “I wrapped up stuffed animals in it, I think. I just liked to play with it in general, taping stuff together.” A wrestler in high school and college, Kass believes he learned strategy and balance from the sport and liked “the element of sacrifice” in fasting before a match. Eventually he enrolled in the San Francisco Art Institute, where a ceramics instructor encouraged him to “just keep making” the little pyramids he found himself creating: “This was the transition to the thought that I could make a bunch of stuff piled on the floor and that was valid in itself–it didn’t have to have some political message, like this is about crack houses.” For his final school project Kass spent six months making clay balls the size of large marbles and piling them on top of each other. “I got very fast at it. I have an appetite for things that involve repetition, I don’t know why.”

While repetition is obviously important in Kass’s work, a certain kind of self-denial seems to lie at its core. Kass abjures the artist’s traditional controlling role, yet the overall forms of his work have a strange beauty, melding order and randomness, suggestions of meaning with denial of meaning. These are works delicately poised on several dividing lines–between art and craft, grandeur and simplicity.

Spline reminded me of great ceremonial stone circles like Stonehenge and of circular ceremonial buildings, but its elements actually undercut monumentality. Flat panels are hung from the ceiling to form three-quarters of a circle the viewer can enter; each panel is composed of eight wooden squares arrayed about an empty center. Each of the wood squares has been dipped in white paint, often either slightly more or less than halfway up, and Kass has positioned them so that the white is alternately on the top or bottom. Here he turns the language of minimalism and of participatory sculptures like those by Robert Morris to different ends. The works’s holes and its combination of obsessive repetition with playfully curved white lines winks at minimalist “perfection” and monumentality–Spline resembles the little structures children build out of boxes and blankets as much as it does ceremonial monuments.

Four “paintings” in the show–Circle, Checkers, Pinstripe, and 4 Inch Stripes–look like minimalist canvases that create geometrical patterns out of alternating fields of white and a pale, luminous yellow. But the surface is actually drywall, and the white and yellow are different kinds of joint compound, a material used to join sections of drywall. Like the sculptures, these works look bland at first. The surprise comes when one realizes they’re not paintings at all but sculptures. This perception is underlined by the odd yellow, far more ethereal than the flat white, a difference that enhances the relief effect.

The diptych panels of 4 Inch Stripes, mounted one above the other, also reverse the color field. At first this seemed a little minimalist game, but after looking at all the work, this simple switch from white to yellow bands on the outer edges became peculiarly affecting. Like Kass’s sculptures, these panels mimic repetitive machine-made forms in many ways–but the color switch is a modest sign of the artist’s presence that, like the curved lines in Spline, seems to say that he’s quite happy with the territory he’s taken for himself and doesn’t need any more.

Where is the artist’s hand? Where does the art reside? The two questions Kass raises also came to mind when I saw Jonah Freeman’s small installation Nervous? at Ten in One. A small video projector casts the pale, silent image of a woman vacuuming on a canvas; across the center of the image the word “nervous?” is neatly printed. At first it’s not clear what’s painted on the canvas and what’s projected; in fact “nervous?” and an abstract reddish pattern are painted, but the video image also has a rusty hue. Either element by itself wouldn’t be very interesting, but together they create an indeterminate but evocative image. Vacuuming down a hallway, the woman moves slowly and inexorably toward us, creating a sense of unease. When she’s almost in close-up the three-minute loop Freeman taped of a friend ends, and she begins vacuuming in the distance again.

Perhaps the unchanging, neatly printed word affects one’s emotional response, but I found myself thinking that this was an agitated, rather twitchy vacuumer. Her naturally irregular movements, the splotchy texture the paint gives the image, her slow advance through a nondescript interior space, and the endless repetition of the same three minutes all evoke the idea of nervous energy trapped inside with nowhere to go.

Born in 1975, Freeman is still an undergraduate at New York University. A year or so ago he began projecting film loops onto abstract paintings; he’s been doing “video paintings” like Nervous? for only a few months (a New York show is planned for May). While Francis Bacon’s view of the figure and Walter Benjamin’s thoughts on the “aura” of artworks are certainly relevant to Nervous?, I also thought of 60s multimedia performances, in which films and slides were projected onto a variety of surfaces. While such pieces often crossed boundaries, they were also often chaotic, but Nervous? has a precision that makes the feeling of dislocation more focused and meaningful.

Even when the viewer knows which parts of the image come from the canvas and which from the video, in one’s consciousness they’re fused. The entire image, both palpable and immaterial at once, becomes almost an event in the mind, a kind of meditation piece on which to project one’s own bodily movements and psychic nervousness. As with Kass’s works, these contributions from the viewer are as important as the artist’s construction.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): “Sline” by Paul Kass/.