Kim Bissett at the Feinberg Gallery
Whatever else visual art may have to say, it always tells a practical
story about how humans perceive objects in space. The eye speaks
directly to the fingers, proposing sharp or soft edges. Indeed drawing
techniques are a kind of projection of touch, finding ways to grasp things
at a distance; different kinds of line translate as fine textures, while
masses of solid color or blank surface evoke obstacles or entities –
things to bump into or walk around, veined with breathing room and
passageways. In a sense every imaginative two-dimensional depiction is
a map, in much the same way virtual reality scenarios are maps.
Kim Bissett’s twelve large scale abstract drawings at the Audrey and
Harvey Feinberg Gallery at Cain Park in Cleveland Heights examine this
situation from the perspective of an artist who has been forced to change
the way she responds to texture and volume. For many years Bissett was
primarily a sculptor working in stone and bronze. The punishing labor
finally caught up with her, however, causing extensive damage to the
ulnar nerve in both of her arms. This is a condition that seriously impairs
overall strength as well as the fine motor abilities of the hand. Suddenly,
and permanently, heavy-duty sculpting was a thing of the past.
In 2005, prior to surgeries that effected a partial cure, Bissett began
making drawings using her feet and toes. It wasn’t her intention to make
any kind of statement about her condition, it was simply the only way she
could hold a piece of charcoal and produce marks on paper (around the
same time the artist became trapped in a bathroom stall because she
didn’t have the strength to slide the latch back). Though most of the work
on view at Feinberg Gallery has been completed in the last year using
her hands, one 4’/10’ work called “Poet’s Walk” dates from the long, pain-
filled months before her surgery, as doctors debated her diagnosis.
Footprints can be seen clearly along the margins, while toward the center
long, branching, curving charcoal lines and ink washes seem to ache as
they gently intersect, like tree limbs shifting and creaking. “Poet’s Walk”
is the only drawing in the exhibit executed on a single sheet of paper,
without the collage techniques of cutting and layering that characterize
the rest. It seems to unfurl in a single gesture across the long brown-
painted wall at Feinberg Gallery, much like a scroll. Its horizontal
orientation initially encourages a reading from left to right, but soon the
eye is caught in mild tangles near the center as the mind combs and
sorts, looking for recognizable shapes or taking satisfaction in the
sinuous progress of a line as it moves alongside others, narrowing and
thickening like wood grain.
But in most of her drawings here Bissett explores density, as much
or more than line quality. “In the recent works I was able to work with a
small bremel (a grinding tool) for forty-five minutes at a stretch, to cut the
paper.” Drawing in charcoal and ink on large sheets of creamy, thick
Rives BFK etching paper the sculptor reenacts some of the gestures of
sculpting in a different key, piling up two-dimensional acts until they move
beyond the gestures of mapping and begin incarnations of their own.
Feelings of freedom and relief as the artist discovers new ways to work
are often almost palpable in this new work.
“Spring Day”(2007) is roughly 6’/8.5’ and gives an overall impression
of flattened, impending dimension. It’s big enough to dominate a typical
interior wall, and seems like it might be planning to expand even further.
A sense of coiled, latent motion is communicated by the bremel-cut
layers, calculated to simulate those physical motions of seizing and
tearing that are now beyond Bissell’s strength. Not that “Spring Day” is a
violent vision – as the title suggests, it blooms. If it could be said to start
anywhere, it starts in the middle, moving outward asymmetrically. On the
left it terminates in the long straight edge of a piece of paper steadying
the composition almost in the way a pedestal would, but from the side.
Black and taupe shards accumulate at the bottom. A collection of dark
ocher fragments arches at the top, moving toward the center. There are
few drawn lines here, and as soon as the actual properties of the paper
become less legible -- seen from across the room or in a photograph, for
example -- the work looks like an assemblage in stone, a collage of
granite, alabaster, and marble, streaked here and there with the
grinding, flowing marks of long, slow, hard and heavy changes.
“Santa Ana Blackbird” (2007) conveys a different message. Bissett
tells a story in connection with it. “There is a bird’s nest outside my studio
window, and I found one of the fledglings on the pavement one morning. I
wasn’t studying the birds until then, but I picked it up and held it and tried
to get a sense of its frailty -- what it might feel like to be carried aloft by
the hot winds.”
The 8’/8’ meditation based on this event swoops low on the gallery’s
brown wall. A large black shape of cut paper with a few white lines looks
something like a dragon or a bird as it juts up and over, connecting to a
haphazard spine of paper shards. Some of these are also black, or gray,
and several others are green, orange, pink, and even yellow -- warm like
the summer winds that gain force around the downtown factory buildings
along Superior Avenue where Bissett’s studio is located. Because of the
heaviness of the black shape, the whole loose kite’s tail of torn and
patched shapes seems about to fall, shot through with space and not
enough time, already closing in on the floor. The brown wall actually
helps this effect, suggesting other vertiginous possibilities: We could be
gazing from above, down on a drowning archipelago.
Bissett’s drawings are hybrid creatures, paper sculptures that
remember weight and strain as they redefine the artist’s relationship to
the material world. Damaged nerves recover at a rate of about an inch a
month, but as art merges with life it measures the damage caused and
healed by love. In such increments of passion and memory Bissett’s work
stretches for miles.