Contributed by Leslie Wayne / Visual artists who also write criticism and reviews are not uncommon. Rarer are curators or museum directors who are also practicing artists. They face implicit pressure to stay in their lanes. But I would argue that, as critics, they hold a unique and valuable advantage in their deep knowledge of process and materials. Richard Klein has been the Exhibitions Director of the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum in Ridgefield, Connecticut, for many years. A published writer, he has also exhibited his own artwork widely.
Two recent shows have featured Kleins work. One was an installation (it came down on November 7) that he created at the artist KK Koziks ICEHOUSE Project Space a tiny one-room building in her back yard dedicated to work that responds to the surrounding environment. For his installation, The Understory, Klein researched the first great era of resource extraction following European colonization. Scattered among the hills of Litchfield County and surrounding areas in New York and Massachusetts are remnants of the iron extraction industry. Very few of the furnace sites can still be seen, and Klein took me to one of them just a short drive from the center of Sharon. The original stone walls had slowly collapsed back into the landscape, which is now also an archeological site where fragments of architecture hug a steep slope leading down to the Housatonic River. The soil was black with coal, the result of years of wood burning to fire the furnaces, and littered with piles of firebrick and heaps of slag.
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Kleins powerful installation comprises two sculptures and a photograph that absorb this history and the combative relationship between nature and industrialization. The first sculpture, The Understory (Falls Village), incorporated a burnt wooden architectural column from a razed nineteenth-century house in Canaan, with cast-iron Cracked Cap Polypore fungi attached to it (Klein is also an avid mycologist). It laid on the floor to the left as you walked into the space, slightly elevated by two supports and surrounded by a carpet of dry red and gold autumnal leaves. Measuring 15 x 25 x 72 inches long, it felt like a fallen warrior. The rusted cast-iron fungi on its back seemed to announce natures triumph in reclaiming what had once belonged to the virgin forest. Klein charred the wooden column as a nod to the hundreds of thousands of trees that were felled in order to fuel the furnaces with charcoal.
Leaning against the wall to the right was The Understory (Sharon Valley), a burnt nineteenth-century dentil crown architectural molding with rusted cast iron Hemlock Varnish Shelf fungi dotting its spine. Measuring 10 x 16 x 82 inches high, it was the fallen columns more delicate sister, recalling ornamentation that graced many nineteenth-century buildings during the height of the industry.
On the far wall directly opposite the entrance hung a small reproduction of a photograph of Horatio Ames and his 19,500-pound cast-iron cannon at the Ames Iron Works in Falls Village (Salisbury), Connecticut. Dating from about 1864, the original photo is in the collection of the Salisbury Association. The reproduction was printed in offset lithograph and set into a large wooden frame that Klein singed to an elegant black. The glass inside the frame was handblown nineteenth-century plate glass that had a palpably wavy profile to it, replete with small air bubbles that lent the work an authentic antique feel.
In an essay accompanying the installation, Klein outlined the history of iron extraction in the area, noting that the mineral was first discovered in Litchfield County in 1731 and that the first iron blast furnace in the area was built in Lime Rock in 1735. By 1770, the British colonies in North America had become the worlds third-largest iron producer, manufacturing cannons for the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War, along with a range of armaments and munitions. By 1890, the discovery of massive iron ore deposits in northern Minnesota signaled the end of production in the Northeast. In 1923, the East Canaan furnace was shut down for good. In the spirit of this project, some of the cast-iron fungi will be returned to furnace sites to oxidize back into the landscape. Visually, the two sculptures and framed photo reproduction held the small clean white room with economy and grace, and on the floor the burnt orange and red leaves, so rich and deep, rendered the whole installation elegiac. This was a thoroughly researched and deeply felt project of stark poetic beauty that inspired contemplation.
At Kenise Barnes Fine Art in Kent, Connecticut, Kleins work occupies a wall that reaches up to the rafters of the original barn, which is adjacent to the main gallery and is often used for special projects. Hung salon-style are seven glass bottles that he has collected over the years and altered in various ways. All of them are hand-gilded on the back with white gold leaf, which turns their curved interior surfaces into mirrors that reflect the natural light streaming in from the windows. Each bottle is unique in size and shape, and embellished differently with various objects, from copper- and brass-plated fungi to razor wire and gold-leafed glass funnels. All the bottles are hung upside-down except for one, titled Marriage, which features a seamless strand of razor wire circling through it from outside to inside a feat of impeccable craftsmanship. Also delightful is the witty title. Indeed, marriage is a barbed relationship between two distinct forces and its success depends on a delicate balance of strength, beauty, and a sense of humor.
Another piece, Empty, is an upside-down glass jug festooned with copper- and brass-plated fungi. The white gold-leafed reflection on the interior makes it look as if there is another bottle inside, while its silvery interior hazily mirrors the mushrooms on the exterior of the bottle. Is this vessel empty or not? Despite the illusion, the mushrooms seem to signal that it is indeed, and had long been abandoned.
Klein has been collecting Whimsey Bottles for over 25 years. A form of folk art, these are bottles with small handmade sculptures built inside them. They have no doubt affected his approach to his own bottle sculptures, imbuing them with a spare elegance and seriality more often associated with Minimalism than with Folk or Outsider Art. He also cites Surrealism, Outsider Art, Art Povera, psychedelia and optical science as influences. Klein has used found objects in his work, particularly those made of glass, since the 1990s. His attraction to the commonplace, cast-off detritus of our material culture lies in their collective embedded meanings. Bottles are metaphors vessels for histories, feelings, and ideas. By virtue of their transparency, however, they also reflect and refract light, which is incorporeal and ever-changing. In his statement about the work, Klein writes: While the bottle sculptures recall the fragility and the capriciousness of life, the way they play with light suggests the possibility of transformation. Indeed, Klein has not only transformed the bottles themselves from abject debris to objects of beauty, but also transformed the gallery wall by way of their reflective magic.
The shows in Sharon and Kent bookended Kleins longtime interest in history and the passage of time through material objects that capture our impermanence. It was a lovely way to spend a fall day as the trees signaled another season and another cycle of life.
Richard Klein in the Annex Space, Kenise Barnes Fine Art, 7 Fulling Lane, Kent, Connecticut. Through November 20, 2021.
“Richard Klein: The Understory,” ICEHOUSE Project Space, Sharon, CT. September 25 to November 7, 2021.
About the Author: New York artist Leslie Wayne is represented by Jack Shainman Gallery in Chelsea. Wayne is an occasional writer and curator, and has received numerous grants and awards for her painting objects, including a 2017 John Simon Guggenhheim Foundation Fellowship.