STRATA: BETWEEN GEOMETRY AND GESTURE*
Reproduced with permission from the catalogue for the exhibition Strata at Mc Clelland Gallery, Langwarrin, 1999
Simeon Kronenberg, 1999
The question central in the minds of many artists, critics, and art historians in the late twentieth century in the light of the loss of faith is simply: does art still possess the power to speak to the culture about things that matter?
Richard Francis, Negotiating Rapture.
What is investigated in Strata, a site-specific and ephemeral installation, is an ambiguous and complex apprehension about contemporary art making. Strata refers to a diverse range of contexts: mid century art history (particularly that of the painting and sculpture of the 1960's) the specific natural history of the site, spiritual imperatives and the wider landscape.
Strata however, is more than an appropriation - it is predicated on a sensitive reading of the environment and the realisation of a compelling moral necessity - that is, responsibility to the earth and its sustainability. This is crucially relevant at the close of an environmentally compromised century. Also, Strata is evidence of the artist's metaphysical and spiritual interests and exemplifies a meditative approach to art making, through repetition and patterning.
Essentially, the work acknowledges terrain through an imposed and codified geometry, and at the same time wittily re-investigates Post-Painterly Abstraction. Strata also borrows from the tenets of the New Sculpture, as promulgated in the Whitney Museum of American Art exhibition of the same name (The New Sculpture 1965-1975: Between Geometry and Gesture), representing artists like Robert Smithson and Eva Hesse. This movement was based on opposition to the hermetically sealed and emotionally mute minimalist painting and sculpture then current. Its aim was in fact to bring the subjective back to art and to allow for the recognition of appropriate historical context. Importantly, artists of the New Sculpture group were critically concerned with site-specific sculpture and environmental space.
In Strata, Lauren Berkowitz subtly re-investigates the self-imposed (and self-important) severity of 1960's Post-Painterly Abstraction, as exemplified best in the early and singularly tough 'stripe paintings' of the American artist, Frank Stella. Berkowitz borrows the stripe, utilised by Stella, Josef Albers and others, but subverts this reserved (almost deadpan) and clinical format, by choosing to make vivid stripes of coloured sand, more like the Op Art vibrations of the British artist Bridget Riley. Also, in its concern with found materials, Strata recalls the landscape based constructions of Australia's Rosalie Gascoigne.
The very materials used, utilitarian quartz gravel, screened topsoil, brick and concrete sand, undermine the high-art seriousness attached to heroic modernist paintings. In this, Strata echoes earlier earth works, like Smithson's Spiral Jetty and Walter de Maria's Earth Room, where the tenets of abstraction were re-worked and broadened, in works constructed from soil, rock and sand.
Where much '60's abstraction remains determinedly aloof, austere and formalist, Berkowitz typically intensifies the emotional resonance of her work. She achieves this through an aching and obsessive involvement in construction and through the very tactility of the disparate (often discarded) materials used, whether they be plastic bags, bottles, rubber or sand. Significantly, the evenly spaced bands in Strata evidence the human touch. The anonymous surface of Post-Painterly Abstraction is repudiated - the sand is unapologetically lush, sensual and velvet-like and the rich colours, while restrained within a familiar, geometric grid, lend the work an intense but muffled emotionality.
Stella's approach, to the early stripe paintings, seems almost totally about process and represented apparent unconcern about 'finish' (the idea was necessarily more important than the work). Berkowitz steers us on a different path. While she clearly 'paints' in sand within a strictly linear and geometric format, she allows for the possibility of metaphoric space, through the intervention of texture and colour.
Further, the very geometry she exploits becomes a keenly ironic and deeply felt subversion of formalist principles. In this way, Berkowitz as an abstractionist, looks back to another American artist, Mark Rothko, for whom abstraction was also much more than geometry. Rothko believed that his work was essentially spiritual - to do with transcendence. Like Barnett Newman, Rothko insisted that his canvases posed spiritual mysteries. Abstract art was an expression of the ineffable.
Strata encourages both an emotional and physical passage through the work itself. The repeated, rhythmic layers (the stripes) can be seen as pathways to meditative experience and multiple levels of meaning. The work invites us in.
Another important reference in Strata is to the indigenous people of Australia, whose desert art also utilises coloured sands. Berkowitz, like traditional tribal artists, is not interested in constructing lasting monuments, but in making ephemeral work that can be returned to the earth. Her installations are centred on an ecological awareness that acknowledges the environment and environmental threat.
The final realisation of any site-specific work by Lauren Berkowitz is often the result of painstaking research. In Strata Berkowitz based her study on the region's soil and its stratification, all drawn from a local sand quarry. Through the considered use of local material, Berkowitz provides an empathetic and idiosyncratic sculptural understanding of the region and its geological identity. What is evident in the resultant installation is a pared back, restrained but nonetheless compelling sense of the fragility of the earth and a uniquely sensitive reading of the immediate environment of the gallery.
Strata is essentially located within an investigation of notions to do with abstract practice - in order to locate the artist's work within an ongoing art history. This stance is reinforced through wider connections to the history of the site, the genesis of site-specific sculpture itself and personal, spiritual concerns.
Simeon Kronenberg October, 1999.
Copyright the author and publisher
* From the title of the Whitney Museum of Art exhibition The New Sculpture 1965-1975: Between Geometry and Gesture.