Thursday, March 1st, 2007

Michele Russman: Sculpture and Mark Nelson: Sound

The Koehnline Museum
1600 Golf Road. De Plaines, IL
December 14 2006 – January 26, 2007

installation shot showing various works by Michele Russman, including (foreground)  Wire Souls I 1988, stainless steel, 72 x 24 x 6 inches. Photograph by Diane Thodos
installation shot showing various works by Michele Russman, including (foreground) Wire Souls I 1988, stainless steel, 72 x 24 x 6 inches. Photograph by Diane Thodos

During the Modernist era many serious women artists were often excluded from art world consideration:  it was not until the Feminist movement of the 70’s that sculptors like Louise Bourgeious and Ruth Duckworth, who began their careers in the 50’s, started to gain serious notoriety within larger art and museum worlds contexts.  The importance of correcting these errors of exclusion is also evident in the resurgent interest in Lee Bontecou’s work, belatedly exhibited in a MoMA traveling retrospective during 2004.   Like Bourgeois, Duckworth, and Bontecou, Michele Russman’s sculpture reflects many of the same ideas from this same period of art: the Modernist basis preserved at its core deserves a similar retrospective recognition.

While Russman’s thin silver threads of wire sculptures have a less brooding psychological mood, all of these artists improvise on organic forms found in both nature and primitive art and commonly improvising from chthonic and totemic inspired forms.  Surrealistic organic shapes were often refined to simplicity, but not without leaving parts that are asymmetrical and expressively off balance within pared down forms.

At the Koehnline Museum a large group of Russman’s wire sculptures dangle from the ceiling into the square exhibition room, glinting like silver threads of light turning in space.  The room is filled with effects of elemental sounds such as running water, bells and crunching snow from a sound track created by Mark Nelson.  A number of wire sculptures sit upon the floor or are pinned to the wall, projecting into the space from all sides.  They outwardly resemble simplified forms derived from cell life, plant forms, or totemic figures, but are compressed into linear hieroglyphic shapes.  The artist’s abstract sensibility owes something to Wassily Kandinsky’s geometric motifs while improvising on Bauhuas inspired constructions for propping themselves off the floor or walls into space.  The wall hanging wire sculptures are particularly dynamic and inventive in their angular projection:  they effectively play symmetrical forms off the third dimension, often with no more than a simple but clever twist in direction.

Many works play analytical lines against biomorphic curves, sometimes filling the space with a diaphanous and undulating movement.  Some have shrimp like bodies, flagella, or short pitched arms and antennae.  The sculptures merge into a community of enlarged microscopic forms; unearthly in their freedom from gravity and using even the shadows they cast to give a sense of weightless being.

The combination of Russman’s ghost-like hangings and Nelson’s punctuating sounds combine to give a sense of abstract nature as Japanese Noh Theater.  It has the strange effect of making time stand still and matter seem ethereal.  The entire room is suffused with a pervasive quietism, lightness, and verticality, emphasizing the spaces between the sculptures as well as the spaces between the sounds.  The large size of some of these works, some getting up to 8 feet tall, creates a monumental mood.  It is as though silence could be trapped and crystallized into a vertical form.   Without a trace of irony the artist succeeds in generating a genuine sense of both Modernist purity and oriental mysticism.  Nelson’s tonal sound environment turn Russman’s wire sculptures into abstract Haikus that eloquently play with the Modernist dialectic of simplicity and asymmetry to create a sincere transcendental mood.