San Diego

Jene Highstein

Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego | La Jolla

Like many of the post-Minimalist sculptors who emerged in the early ’70s, Jene Highstein has produced work that is notable for its enigmatic, hybrid qualities. Although clearly influenced by Minimalism’s reductive formal purity, with its focus on geometry and industrial materials, Highstein eschews its somewhat narrow concentration on ideas and systems in favor of a more organic, intuitive approach, marking in essence a shift from the primary to the primal. As Highstein himself puts it, “The content of my work is not so much nature abstracted, but form which is evolved in relation to nature and which carries with it natural associations.”

Exploiting a vocabulary of biomorphic forms in cast iron, wood, plaster, bronze, and concrete, Highstein stresses the work’s hand-hewn qualities, creating a sort of benign atavism dictated by tactile surfaces and significant shifts of scale. Here, sculpture is a catalyst for defining and transforming space, so that the gallery or museum becomes as much a participant in the overall process as the object itself. The collective results are at once monolithic and intimate, confrontive and reassuring, rugged and elegant.

Although billed as a mid-career survey featuring sculptures, drawings, and site-specific installations from 1973 to 1986, this long-overdue exhibition emphasized the two extremes of the chronological spectrum, contrasting Highstein’s recent stumps, columns, and phallic forms with recreations of two installations from the mid ’70s never before seen outside of Milan. The latter provided particular insights into Highstein’s conceptual roots in both Minimalism and arte povera.

One of these reconstructions, Mound (Turtle), 1976, is the centerpiece of the exhibition. This huge, ovoid mound of black concrete over a wood-and-wire armature dominates the room with its monumental presence, conveying a sense of pure, abstract form while conjuring up images of turtle shells, flying saucers, or some strange podlike organism that might suddenly open and give birth to alien creatures. Its contained power, irregular surface, and close-to-the-ground disposition are typical of Highstein’s work of this period. The piece occupies so much space that we are never able to define its contours accurately or map out its true shape or volume. Its totality can only be pieced together from a variety of viewpoints, each of which successively redefines its density in relation to the surrounding space according to the restricted parameters of visual perception. Yet the work is also somehow strangely comforting, for it gives the appearance of being almost soft, inviting us to lie on it, embrace it, and regain our connection to some indefinable primordial state.

In contrast, Single Pipe Piece, 1974, is more intimidating, consisting of a 39-foot-long, 16-inch-diameter steel pipe that runs the entire length of a gallery at eye level. The artificial sanctity of the exhibition space is simultaneously violated and confirmed by this crude yet elegant object, the curved surface of which creates a forceful dialectic with the rectangular geometry of the room.

Because the two installations were specially recreated for the exhibition, Highstein, whether consciously or not, introduces another conceptual wrinkle that dislocates the original tenets of his work. As reconstructions of site-specific works originally made in Italy, these pieces exist as commissioned simulacra. Instead of the object defining its surrounding space, as in the case of the more recent works, the space here supports and defines the object. The museum “frames” the work both literally and conceptually, so that the materials, scale, and “content” of the work are now conjoined to the institution in a symbiotic relationship. High-stein may have freed his work from the industrial mentality that was the hallmark of Minimalism, but he hasn’t yet found a way to circumvent the industry of art itself.
           
Colin Gardner