New York

Jene Highstein

Stark Gallery

Jene Highstein’s two sculptures, both unique iron castings, have a measured sensibility at once classical and Modernist. As the title of Closed Roman Arch, 1991–92, suggests, their proportions are classical, that is, their scale is given by the human figure. But the surface of this piece, along with that of Kugel, 1991—its title can be translated as “ball,” but also, and perhaps more appropriately here, “bullet” or “shot”—has a texture of rust, conveying a certain melancholy. There is a similar sense of futility in the idea of a closed arch, a gateway made impassable. Highstein is seeking to reconcile incommensurate ideals, presumably to create something more consummate and intriguing than these relics. Indeed, the tragic immediacy conveyed by rust and the tragic grandeur of a closed arch combine in a kind of mannerist beauty. There is supposed to be something strange in beauty, and in the mannerist mode strangeness becomes an end in itself. Highstein is an abstract mannerist who specializes in the past not out of nostalgia but as a source of new sensations in lieu of having new ideas. For the mannerist, postmodern or otherwise, art has no future; it only represents an inheritance of old values through which one can rummage, in hope of finding remnants from which a viable present can be fashioned.

The ingenious irregularity of Highstein’s sculptures helps them constitute such a present. As one closes in on and begins to move around them, they acquire a subtle dimensionality and presence. Planes that were not apparent come into view, and turn into other planes, just as the texture of the sculptures seems to change before one’s eyes as one stares at them. The broken line or seam—a series of faded gestures, casually repeated—marking the height of the Closed Roman Arch is something definite to hold on to. It is an Ariadne’s thread in the labyrinth of amorphous texture, but does nothing to dispel its morbid effect. There is an air of subdued catastrophe to the sculptures: they are the reality of what was once sublime. Highstein’s bullet is spent, as is the triumphalism symbolized by the Roman arch.

The psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott once said that the catastrophe that seems to be in the present has already happened in the past. Highstein’s abstract sculptures are poignant emotional memories of the ambition and significance—both physical, in the arch, and intellectual, in abstraction—that art once had. Elegance is both an escape and the last line of defense before the void: Highstein’s elegant sculptures are the void incarnate.

Donald Kuspit