Richard Klein: The Understory
By AXEL BISHOP, October 2021
A lithographic reproduction of a 19th century Horatio Ames photograph hangs on the back wall of this cabin-like gallery. We first look directly at the image as we step into the exhibition environment, and then tune into the artifacts arranged in the room; objects that have ricocheted from out of the image by way of intuitive and interpretive vision. There is the frozen moment of the image, typical of conventional documentary photography, and as well the staged moment of the arranged objects as a place in time known by recognizing the crunchy Fall leaves as floor cover which are neither from the property, nor congruous to the verdant summery surrounding landscape outside the room. At once there is a sense of multiple overlaid archiving modalities. The recorded image, beyond serving as a document of passed occurrence experienced first-hand by the ten depicted figures within the frame, encodes a depth of information transmitted by its materiality and signification.
The framed reproduction sits under antique glass. A fleet of elliptic shadows dropped below the liquid imperfections of the glass hover over the paper. The artist has scorched the wooden frame to a charred sheen, -its rich blackness in contrast to the image and the wall set it apart and claim the subtle sculptural retelling of the photograph as a representational object.
In terms invented by Robert Smithson to extend the recognition of the sites of his interest to the gallery platform, the ‘non-site’ refers to the space and display of objects that tie audiences of culture to far-flung places where natural phenomena have been lightly ordered or manipulated to build meaning and perception far from typical spaces for such comprehension. Smithson’s object installations typically include photographs, geological artifacts, notated drawings and maps along with sculptural systems that gather and frame raw material from the field. Smithson produced sculptural transformations about natural transformations that occur in a timeframe so big that without such representation they would be imperceptible. Klein shares an interest in applying artistic gestures to meditate and speculate on entropic systems as well, but with his own amalgam of material, history, industry, form. Klein’s process builds from extensive research and deep thinking about what has been referred to as ‘deep time’. Klein, circulating around sites of interest that might have also interested Smithson, approaches his subjects with a less interventive and more relational analysis. The tools for narrating history are a part of Klein’s raw material and his readings and firsthand fieldwork are enriched by apocryphal accounts by historians and collaborations with craftsmen.
Most conspicuous from its scale, placement and occupation of the room is a tapered cylindrical form, blackened by the same technique as the picture frame, -a technique that is also applied to a fragment of an architectural crown molding that is an armature for another work, “The Understory (Sharon Valley)”, linking key assemblies in this installation. The sculptures are unified by this aesthetic, yet each branch into different avenues that map the artist’s subject, capillaries traveling the overall anatomy of storytelling unfolding here.
The Understory (Falls Village), the cylindrical form slightly elevated from the floor, is first redolent of the cannon in the Ames lithograph. The form is shorter, and a closer look reveals the end grain and mitered joinery as well as the seams running lengthwise. Not an artillery relic at all, but a segment of a structural column from the same era as the weapon depicted above. The perpendicular shift between cannon and column endeavors to create an axis between the industry of warcraft and the house-building fortunes enabled by their economy. Upon this junction, another element is fashioned: several oxidized iron fungi appear to grow from the column, and combined with the bed of leaves, these elements restage a moment of encountering a fallen tree trunk decaying in the woods. The cast, orangey fungi make a much wider frame of time in which to consider the relationships among cultural artifacts, placing us inside a moment along a geological timeline, where history is swept into decomposition and great fortunes become the vestigial ruins of Ozymandias, -the fallen grandeur evoked by Percy Shelley’s sonnet (also crafted in this same era of Klein’s meditation), but all happening as if in the quick burst of growth that produces fungus in an abundance of moisture.
The rusty fungi are the motif central to The Understory overall. They appear to be growing from two of the sculptures, and in the third, the lithograph, our eye can bend to find this form repeated in the shapes of the many little shadows that fall from the voids in the glass and float all over the image of the long-lost ‘ongoing moment’.
A tangential thought comes to mind: The famously complex history of Roger Fenton’s Crimean War photograph*, -or rather double photograph- of images that portray the battlefield while leaving the veracity of photography as a truthful document in the dust, ultimately conveys the nature of war and not the recovered details of an historic incident. It is hard to imagine that Klein was not keenly aware of these parallels to his own subjective history investigation, especially when considering how the story under persistent controversy in the Fenton image hinges on the presence and placement of a field of cannonballs. Fenton’s photographs, like Klein’s use of image, is more powerful and valuable as a thoughtful artwork and alternate history-telling than it is as an objective record.
As important as the representational sculptural forms, the material presence of locally sourced wood and iron is essential to gaining meaning imbedded in the objects here. Fungi were cut from dead trees as the artist clambered in the field to build his knowledge from his surroundings. They were then cast from iron ore dug from the surrounding Connecticut hills. Klein has traversed re-forested land surrounding abandoned sites from which iron was mined to drive the engine of growth from the Revolutionary War to the Civil War. This industrial history entwines the machinery of war with the vernacular architectural landscape. In addition to growing military arsenals, nails driven through the boards of newly constructed homes were forged from these sources, as were the shoes of horses, the hardware of mills, farming implements, anchors of ships…all deriving from ore underfoot and formed in forges kept burning at high heat by denuding and reshaping the forested environs. The fungi sprung from the seams of the fallen column indicate a retaking of this history, just like the lakes and trees that now cover up the brick and slag remnants of once ubiquitous operations of pit-mine extraction. A selection of some of the iron fungi will be returned to the land from which it came, to complete a circle by allowing its carefully cast form to disintegrate. The artist has handled these materials in a way that enables their own articulation of elemental stages in the unfolding passage of time and reclamation.
By gaining knowledge of the extensive history that the artist has been engaged with through book and shovel, image and forge, the objects represented give voice to unseen phantoms of our environs. Yet, it seems clear that the subject matter of this installation is a small component of a more cosmic vision to expand on thematically. The Understory dwells on the presence (and depletion) of material resources, how they become integral in human innovation and therefore valued, devalued and consumed; what they are and what meanings they may hold. Klein’s predecessor Smithson used the objects that he arrayed in a gallery, notably rocks, broken glass and mirrors, to redirect our view to something beyond, informed and aware of the phenomena from which his materials took shape and the timeline that was required for the shaping. We gain access to the local subject, the understory, and the complicity of the featured material in this exhibit in rich and intricate ways. The larger context for Klein’s thinking is subtly indicated here in seeming asides, like the casual placement of rusted iron alongside a geological mass on a windowsill. But the window itself seems to be an important portal to the next iteration of his project. WM
* The Valley of the Shadow of Death; Roger Fenton, salted paper print, 1855
Axel Bishop is a poet based in St. Johns, Newfoundland. Bishop lectures and writes about art and architecture, and reviews exhibitions concentrated in the Northeast United States and Canada. Recent writing has appeared in Architectural Inventions (Laurence King, UK), Cornelia Magazine (Buffalo, NY), and WTD Magazine (UAE). Image credit: Heike Storm 2019.view all articles from this author