Jene Highsten, Lines in Spaceby Joan Waltemath
Lines in Space
Björn Ressle Gallery
March 7 - April 11, 2009
Since I first saw them a few weeks ago at Björn Ressle Gallery, a series of unusual ink on photograph ‘drawings’ have lingered in my mind. Made in 1973, they are being shown now for the first time in conjunction with the publication of “Lines in Space”, a monograph by Laura Mattioli Rossi detailing the nature of the investigations surrounding a body of work that Jene Highstein made in the early 70s and calls the “pipe pieces.” In his 79th Street gallery, Ressle presents two sculptures from the time in the midst of these long-buried photo works and original drawings.
Rossi’s study makes the point that Highstein’s engagement with minimalism was never dogmatic but rather flourished in dialogue with the ongoing problems that captured his attention. Working within the context of collaborative projects in the early years of Soho, the form of his works echoes the terms of their engagement. Visible in the gallery as well as through documentation, Highstein’s sculptures are a testament to the experience of landscape in both forested and open areas and to the deep relationship that exists to multiple and singular vertical forms at varying distances in space. The physical one to one relationship between the standing form and the body is both primal and undeniable; the doubled pieces triangulate and create a perspectival unit that is inclusive. Whether looking at subtle or extreme differences, his interventions set up a network of relations generating a void that opens up and allows for a deciphering.
Fresh and immediate despite their sepia tone, the photographs that Highstein printed of prospective sites for his sculptures have a certain weight to their material presence. As images they depict raw industrial spaces that were in the process of being converted, landscapes filled with trees or sometimes an industrialized zone reminiscent of Smithson’s 1967 “Monuments of Passaic” project. Most of the photographs have one or two—though sometimes there are three—singular vertical lines painted with ink directly on the uneven surface of the photographic paper in what appears to be a single stroke. The brush width and nuance of the ink meeting the slick surface of the photograph is clearly visible, scaling it to the 8-by-10-inch photo paper until the images of the sites exert a force on the single stroke and cause it to be read at the scale of eight to ten feet like the pipe piece, ‘Stirrer”, which stands the end of the gallery. The resulting tension causes the photo collages to magnetize attention. In the midst of all the verticals there is a single horizontal intervention into a photograph of the forest that challenges the terms set by the other vertical pieces in the group.
The subtly inclined ‘Stirrer’ at 12 inches in diameter echoes the proportion and angles of the trees in the adjacent photographs and solidifies the reading of the gestural lines as sculptural works. The drawings on the opposite wall—simple sketches to document variations on a theme—have a similar directness and intensity, yet they remain sketches and are clearer in relation to each other than one could imagine them alone. Here an investigation of horizontal possibilities takes over from the vertical. A photo cut out suggests Gordon Matta-Clark who was also a founding member of the Anarchitecture collective founded in 1973 or 1974 at the legendary 112 Green street space.
At other end of the room “Magic Rope Trick” with its long vertical neon light reaching up the wall offers evidence of a direction Highstein didn’t pursue. This second sculpture hints at a position on technological inventions that seems to oppose the staid form of his pipe pieces, where the movement occurs through the viewer’s perception of the piece and not in the notion of the new.
The tendency to strip down to the essential makes Highstein’s exhibition poignant at this particular moment. What is striking about seeing this body of work in hindsight, with the benefit of the handsome accompanying publication, is the fluidity and openness that it has to what it has influenced and what has been influenced by it. At a time when the “hedge fund avant-garde” is in retreat, Highstein’s project offers a refreshing model for a fertile field of action.
JOAN WALTEMATH is an artist who lives and works in New York City. She writes on art and has served as an editor-at-large of the Brooklyn Rail since 2001. She has shown extensively and her work is in the collections of the Harvard University Art Museums, the National Gallery of Art, the Hammer Museum and the Museum of Modern Art. She is currently the Director of the LeRoy E. Hoffberger School of Painting at MICA.