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Glass and Gravitas 

Precious they are not. Unlike so many other glass artists, Gene Koss could never be accused of producing works that were in any way frail, overly ornamental or unnecessarily delicate, and that may be a mixed blessing in a medium long associated with the Venetian predilection for frou-frou. But Venice is a world away from the upper Midwest where Gene Koss' vision originated, and this 30-year retrospective offers an insightful overview of the work of an artist and teacher whose efforts were instrumental in establishing New Orleans as a hot spot in the world of art glass.

Raised on a Wisconsin dairy farm, Koss never lost sight of his roots in the land and the machines that worked it. Consequently, his bold, often minimal and sometimes massive glass and steel concoctions have a uniquely American, yet oddly surreal, quality about them, a sense of being both familiar and slightly alien. All of these traits are epitomized in Amish, an emblematic work that initially suggests an archaic farm machine, perhaps a wheeled rake. Based on a series of simple steel s-curves -- even the spokes of the wheels comprise a serpentine pinwheel pattern -- Amish harks to an earlier industrial era when steel was invested with poetry. But Koss extends the metaphor by inserting colored glass bricks between the curved rake blades to form a kind of canopy. Each of the glass rectangles is inscribed with cryptic designs and textures that suggest some whimsical commentary, like miniature Rosetta Stones refracting enigmatic patterns of light. The piece itself is big, nearly 10 feet across, and heavy (Koss sculptures sometimes weigh as much as 8 tons), yet the effect is hallucinatory, paradoxical for its mingling of the heft of metal and the lightness of dreams.

Timber is even bigger, 14-feet tall and 16-feet long, yet it couldn't be much simpler. Here a massive, squared off wooden beam of the sort used in 19th century warehouses is mounted at an odd angle to a heavy steel armature on the floor, like those brackets that secure steel I-beams in skyscrapers. Counterbalancing the tilting timber is a horizontal beam comprised of glass -- actually square segments of glass -- and lighted from within. The resulting work is almost as minimal as anything by Richard Serra, yet more organic owing to the imposing character of the wood, and also more fanciful because of the oddly dreamy way that glowing, electrically illuminated glass comes across to our eyes and imagination.

So something that might have seemed foreboding and inert has this aura, a cool and icy aura to be sure, but an aura nonetheless, with all the associations of epiphany and annunciation that implies. Rather than simply a formal, modern, minimalist challenge to our senses in the manner of Serra or Donald Judd, this piece also reads like a totem of sorts, a tribute to the old gods of industry and travail and their pre-virtual reality where things actually were what they seemed and work required real labor. Even smaller pieces such as Sculpture on the Ridge III, a modernist, deco-looking concoction of circles and rods like an outsized, Olympian-wheeled pizza cutter, reflects this mythic, Vulcan-like sensibility. If much of this alludes to the hand of man and the power of the land as factors shaping his work, his Ridge Road Climb series is a rather abstract, almost metaphysical, exception. Here glass appears as frozen globs of light imbued with ambient luminosity and subtle exterior markings and messages. In Ridge Road Climb, 1997, a softly rounded tablet of glass like flowing water frozen in time appears utterly clear except for a wispy tracery of blue floating near the top and some feint lines and obscure writing etched on the surface. Here the elemental fluidity of glass seems to reflect the human need for ascendance or transcendence, that "climb" Koss alludes to in the title, the spark behind all that earthly effort. Also on view are his sketch books where colorful drawings further elaborate the vision and thought processes behind the work. It's a nice touch that, with the Ridge Road Climb series, provides a buoyant counterpoint to the sheer heft of works in which the sweat of the brow and the lay of the land are emphatically implicit, and gravity is an unavoidable force to be reckoned with.

click to enlarge Gene Koss' Timber may be large but it is utterly simple, counterbalancing the tilting timber with a horizontal beam of glass.
  • Gene Koss' Timber may be large but it is utterly simple, counterbalancing the tilting timber with a horizontal beam of glass.
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