Exhibition Reviews | Visual Arts

Brian Usher and Teresa Kalnoskas

“Lissil I,” cast glass, 37 x 17 x 19 by Brian Usher

From loose sketching in search of form to the final cartoon filled in with paint, from the ornament engraved in metal to the print made by inking the cut and pressing it against paper, from the preparatory profile drawn on a block of stone to a length of wire fashioned into a three-dimensional model, the art of drawing has formed the foundation of the visual arts for so long that we may be excused for thinking that drawing first is the natural way, or even the only way, for images to come about. Two strong counter-examples are on display at Julie Nester Gallery in Park City through March, and while each artist takes an entirely personal view of the relation between line and mass, the opportunity to see them together marks a rare and exquisite opportunity to see the interconnection between these two protean components of art not just made cognitively apparent, but aesthetically illuminated

Cast glass sculptor Brian Usher begins with a diagrammatic demonstration of the classical process. Each of his calligraphic ‘Lissils’ begins with a line drawing made on a flat surface. Take a pencil and a piece of paper, mark a continuous line that loops about three times before smoothly joining its end to its beginning. There you have the start of a potential Usher. Of course major works often begin in the simplest of ideas; it’s the hard work of getting from the idea to the realization that proves the artist. In a step familiar everywhere from sign painting to computer graphics, Usher first projects a copy of his line out parallel to it in space, giving it an implied third dimension. Then he thickens the original line, shrinking the spaces between the lines as they gain in bulk. Once this shape is reproduced in three real dimensions, cast in a single, intense color of glass, he may manipulate and finish it in a variety of ways. He may reheat the glass until it slumps, thus replacing the original plane of the line with a hemisphere or an arc, or twist it until the original pattern all but disappears. Some surfaces are then polished to transparency, while others are brought to a matte condition and still others retain the marks created during modeling and molding. He may close off some of the window-like openings between line segments, leaving what an architect would call blind passages.

“Amber Oval,” 38 x 21 x 8 by Brian Usher

At this point, the sculpture has achieved a compound, three-dimensional presence such as any abstract sculpture would present. For the cognoscenti, though (and any alert observer), that external form is just the beginning of a visual journey. The real adventure lies inside the glass. Anyone who’s ever gazed into a transparent object will have noted that things inside do not appear where they belong according to independent observation of its outside. Just so, looking through the clear surfaces of Usher’s glass arabesques, one sees a very different pattern of visible passageways within from that mandated by the actual exterior. Depending on the angle, it’s possible to see all the way through in some passages, while others end mysteriously. Here the blind passages are particularly effective, upsetting the viewer’s expectations even as they are being learned.

Moving around a sculpture is part of experiencing it. No less so in Anthony Caro than in Praxiteles, finding what’s on the other side, or how connections are made between parts, is part of the experience. Moving around a Brian Usher doesn’t just change whether it can be seen through or not. Changing the angle at which light enters or exits the sculpture’s interior changes the apparent depth and relative angles seen there. The eye and mind can play with this apparent anomaly endlessly. Millions of years of evolution went into honing the mind to see accurately, and no matter how many times the eyes venture into them, optical puzzles never lose their power to baffle and intrigue. Yet beyond this play of light, color, surfaces and space lie serious questions. We can assume that abstract marks, like the squiggled lines that began the ‘Lissil,’ can communicate impressions, ideas, and feelings in a way related to language and the ten thousand-year history of writing. But as Usher expands them into three-dimensional form, something unpredictable happens. They become animated, not just pictures of things, but characters whose stories are full of events. The impressions of the molds, transferred to the glass, speak of the difference between intentions and results. Scarred surfaces and remodeled details evoke an unknown, but richly implied history.

“Two, 6,” cast glass, 33 x 21 x 9, by Brian Usher

Silica is a kind of stone—heavy, unyielding—but glass is translucent, filled with light and, here, color. The shape of outside and the illusory space inside suggest something less obdurate, more ephemeral, like the way the melody in a piece of music suggests a sequence of thoughts. The history of how this shape was created conveys meaning words cannot: a feeling of cutting, pressing, bursting through, yielding. We can at least talk about these technical facts and what they suggest. Beyond that, the aesthetics of pure color taking form in space suggest a cerebral or emotional presence, like our own inner sense of being, sometimes contained in a scarred vessel, at others bounded only by itself.

The techniques of painting are far more familiar than those of glass, even to glass artists, and Teresa Kalnoskas takes advantage of this accessibility to subvert our expectations of how forms are created. Instead of depicting her subjects, she dramatizes them, making their coming into being something that happens not from their skins in, but from their accumulating, heavy centers out. They represent a coalescence of material that swirls about on her canvas like the primordial soup that, according to cosmologists, stars emerge from. In fact, the objects she finds in the pigment she excavates with her brush have no skins. Neither have they solid bodies. Indeed, they resemble storm clouds, swirling darkly around energetic cores, lit almost as much, and more intensely, by the lightning within as by their luminous surroundings.

“Stone Fruit,” mixed media on linen, 24 x 24, by Teresa Kalnoskas

Even the open space wherein she places them offers nothing like solid ground. We’re at the lower limit of perspective here, where the clues to how to organize this space give way to the reality that nothing is solid. There is more space between the marks that render what lies beneath these fruits, toy jacks, and ‘stills’—in which title she strips the Still Life to its essence—than paint in them. As for the impulsively-stroked lines that circle these curiously massive objects, sometimes spiraling or seeming to bounce about like highlights reflected from reverberating surfaces, they may be seen as energy overlaid on matter, not unlike the light that enables us to see them. Paint is material, and an intervening medium through which we try to contact whatever is real. Teresa Kalnoskas’ paintings don’t replicate the Neo-Platonic ‘ideal form’ of her subjects, nor their obdurate materiality. Instead, they reproduce for us the process by which we discover reality: finding a bit of the network here, another fragment there, and gradually building up from these hints a picture of something dependable amid the mystery. By the age when most of us learned to look critically at art, this process has become so much second nature that we may rarely notice it. Cognitive science has made great strides in elucidating how we perceive, and it’s good to understand. But it’s even better to move back and forth between understanding, or science, and direct experience. Better still is to have both present in one place, as they are at Julie Nester’s this month. Visual beauty and the physiological pleasure it produces can take thought beyond words, into a realm where understanding becomes joy.

“Heirloom Peppers,” mixed media on linen, 24 x 24, by Teresa Kalnoskas


“Still #14,” oil, alkyd and wax on panel, 24 x 24 by Teresa Kalnoskas

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