New York

Steve Keister

Blum-Helman Gallery

From Georges de la Tour's incandescent figures to Dan Flavin's burlesques, artists have attended to the conundrum of emanating light. Steve Keister, too—witness the way he dims his installation space by blinkering the spots and training them exclusively on the painted interiors of his sculptures. The result is a seemingly sourceless beaming of light; the works appear to glow from within, but there is no trace of a controlling mechanism inside, Glamorama, for example, is a mannequin filled with light that enters through a hole in the top of the head which one has to stand on tiptoe to see. Borrowed light, like the moon's, traditionally bathes its receiver in sterility, but this Giorgio de Chirico–derived bust also enacts a tableau of inspiration: open your mind and let clarity flow in. Much is inorganic (the rusted iron base) and mutant (the featureless, amputated model) but the light, though eerie, is holistic. In the more typical, hanging pieces, this fool-the-eye mission of the lighting is mated with fool-the-mind shapes: from every angle the outline of a given construction is definite, but each shift in position presents a new, unrelated configuration, so that parts don't gel. Even in the mind's eye what is grasped is disjointed, composed of experiences in time but never quite amalgamated over time. What does it mean to juxtapose the temporal—more specifically the ephemeral, as embodied by Keister's junk materials and period memorabilia—with the timeless? The fragmented with the seamless?

The period the work suggests is the ‘50s and early '60s, and the glow is no doubt nostalgic (even neon looks like hearth light from a distance). This was the era when science fiction films came into their own, and clearly the hardware of that genre is emotionally important to Keister for some reason; the much remarked Swiss cheese, UFO aspects of his forms are deliberately as hokey as that cinema. The radiance, on the other hand, hooks up with Steven Spielberg's movies, in which light spills from an alien source to drench bystanders, generally beneficently. A guess is that Keister, like Spielberg, has telescoped the mystical and scientific connotations of “otherworldly.” Not only does his light seem potent enough to have forced the Swiss cheese holes in the works’ coverings, but the way it changes color—it shines on areas painted in different shades, with the points of change, the borders, carefully hidden—endows it with the quickness and responsiveness of an intelligence.

Consequently there's the illusion that a life force, if you will, resides in a work's interior at the same time that literally it is empty. Thus, while the pieces borrow the look of Constructivism, they deny the Constructivist principle that structurally the center is the column of strength, the point of planar intersection. This is a super-rationalism that, by dissecting the innards of sculpture so thoroughly, does away with any superstition about its soulfulness. Vladimir Tatlin propounded a variation of this materialism most insistently when he claimed an arrangement of prefabricated objects, composed in “real” space , to be sculpture without any representational intent. Keister is of course equally insistent about tropes; perhaps too much so. Allusions bloom everywhere—a pinball machine/coffin/baby buggy collusion in Magic Motion, a pair of real horns on Atra, an actual hood ornament on Pine Valley Sunset. Phantom effectively updates Braque's and Picasso's guitar. Tatlin's corner relief—which like Keister's fabrications was hung from wires—pushed outward, making the planes of the corner part of the relief and crystallizing the room as a sculpture; Keister's pieces suck all ambience into the vortex of the lit cynosure. They do this without abandoning the Cubist practice of inverting solid and void. The cutouts and light allow us to see through mass, making it less ponderable, without losing form—hence the rightness of their airy positioning.

Up to a point, the tensions enumerated so far are functionally strung. One of the likable aspects of Keister's work, for instance, is that while he obviously values the vehicle of collage as a time capsule for cultural trivia, his mass-produced objects themselves derive from art. How long did it take for Jean Arp's biomorphic forms to become kidney-shaped rugs, or for Jackson Pollock's drips and splatters to roost on rubber tile, Formica, and wallpaper, so that when we see those marks in Keister's Magic Motion we think of decorative rather than artistic milestones? One thing that does get stretched to the breaking point, though, is the thread between the high-art aureoles of the installation and the slapstick comedy of Keister's mimesis. Sometimes what you hear is only the snap of special effects.

Jeanne Silverthorne