by Mark Van Proyen
The gallery at the Kala Institute is spacious and well-lit but not large enough to contain nearly 60 works in this 50-year survey of Archana Horsting’s paintings, drawings and graphic works titled On the Fringe of the Field. This comprehensive exhibition spills into hallways and adjacent workspaces, making for an overwhelming eyeful. Horsting co-founded Kala in 1974, serving as that organization’s executive director until her retirement in 2021. This exhibition and its accompanying catalog represent a richly deserved lifetime achievement salute to a venerable community leader who is also an artistic and intellectual polymath.
There are a lot of consistencies that can be observed in the works presented here, as well as some odd variations and deviations, all of which reveal influences that come into focus on close observation. The earliest among them is a piece Horsting carved from granite when she was six years old It’s titled Presiding Spirit/Guardian Figure (1956) and looks very much like a neolithic fetish object while also echoing Constantine Brancusi’s famous 1916 work The Kiss. It features an impassive face and diagonal zig-zags that read as lightning bolts, motifs that reappear, in various guises, in subsequent works. One such piece, Labyrinth (1971), was a large (25 x 70-foot) outdoor installation at the University of California, Santa Cruz, designed to pull double duty as a stand-alone sculpture and an outdoor architectural site intended to host performances. It stood at the university for five years before being dismantled. It’s not part of the exhibition, but it is pictured in the catalog to show, one presumes, how Horsting was, at the beginning of her career, balancing two competing visual elements: labyrinths and para-linguistic inscriptions.
Moonlit Palms (1977), an intaglio print, shows the impassive face of Presiding Spirit lurking behind a quartet of palm trees. Here the zig-zag line is sublimated into crisply articulated descriptions of palm leaves that are too geometric to be called naturalistic. Another early multi-colored etching, Guardian Figure (1972), comes across as a bird-headed gatekeeper (Minotaur?) guarding an unseen labyrinth. Monotypes from the 1979 Overpass series use an upward-facing, low-angle perspective to connect complex freeway interchanges to the idea of traveling through or around a maze.
The 1980s were a productive decade for Horsting, evidenced by the fact that more than half of the works in the exhibition hail from that decade. Most are executed in heavy black oil stick on white paper with rare and judicious inclusions of subdued color. For example, in Jelly Fish (1983), Horsting uses a sequence of red lines surrounded by black oil stick to evoke the emblematic form that doubles as a schematic representation of a labyrinth. Here, the black shapes also reveal a purposefully repeated smudging of their edges, ambiguating their figure/ground gestalt to suggest the early stages of desolation. In some instances, the regimented edge smudging also suggests thorns or fungal growth, as can be seen in works such as Cactus Conversation (1988), Farfarmela (1986) and Archaic Landscape (1987). Other works reveal how the zig-zag forms evolved into dramatic formal devices that create thunderclap activations of graphic space, exemplified by Lampo (A and B) (1983), Fortification (1984), Divisidero (1987) and Grand Lampo (1988).
Path from A to B (1986), Blau Hauser and Palindrome (both 1987) provide understated allusions to the ideas of inscription and architectural labyrinth, finding a precarious and evanescent balance between the two. Double Staircase, Jantar Mantar (2003), one of the exhibition’s larger and more complex works, features a pair of red-ocher staircases surrounded by a graphic spiral configuration and four others depicting phases of the moon. It functions as the transitional pivot between the early works and those that followed.
Compositions that balance cryptic inscriptions with architectural allusions also predominate in a generous selection of colored etchings. Each features a para-linguistic form emerging from a chromatically saturated ground, like a mysterious semaphore from a thick fog. Some seem to have three dimensions, as in Padovan Arches (1983) or Klee Figurine (1987). More often, they are provisional alignments of shape fragments that tease the threshold of coherence, like Indication (1983) or Underwater Arch (1984). These etchings reveal the influence of Paul Klee, especially in the way they condense allusions to microcosm and macrocosm by toying with edges that run the anxious gamut between crisp and casual.
Are these works ideograms or pictograms or something in between? At the very least, they fulfill the Kantian mandate of conveying purposefulness without purpose, thereby elevating themselves from banal decoration. In the catalog, Horsting says they relate to Ludwig Wittgenstein’s writings about the impossibility of language doing anything other than pointing to things other than itself, an interesting philosophical truism for sure. However, this insight has limited explanatory power since Horsting’s works are not strictly linguistic. At the same time, it’s also clear that her work is representational in some
indeterminate way since even the most abstract image is intrinsically symbolic insofar as it represents a presumed transcendence of representation or a particularized escape from it. So what, then, can any exercise in abstraction be said to do? Evocation is the obvious answer, but it is not the only one.
Indeed, there is something else going on in Horsting’s works from the 1980s and 1990s, reaching back to her earliest efforts. During the early 1970s, Marija Gimbutas’s archeological work from the 1950s became widely popular. It focused on Neolithic proto-cultures that proliferated in southeastern Europe during the fourth and fifth millennium BCE, with particular attention paid to the remains of structures those early agricultural people left behind. From those remains, Gimbutas theorized and extrapolated the existence of matriarchal goddess worship communities whose buildings were characteristically labyrinthine in a way that suggested communal living arrangements, many decorated with spiral and zig-zag inscriptions presumed to have cosmological significance. (The zig-zag form was said to represent thunder and lightning, imagined as divine voices.) So, it was not surprising that her controversial findings were taken as inspiration by many feminist artists from the 1970s, including Judy Chicago and Ana Mendieta. At the very least, they demonstrated that patriarchy was a cultural construct rather than an unquestionable state of nature.
What does this have to do with Horsting’s work from the 1980s and early 1990s? No one has suggested that Gimbutas’ research directly influenced Horsting’s work. Still, a case can be made that it did so indirectly since those ideas were woven throughout the complex fabric of feminist art practices undertaken during the 1970s.
By 2004, Horsting started to move into new territory. The work from that period is collectively titled The Photo Translation series, represented here by about 12 works. All are executed in black or gray oil stick on paper, emphasizing subtle tonal variations that sharply depart from the stark contrasts of earlier works. In these, the artist reimagines canonical photographs taken by well-known male photographers, removing some of their visual nuances in favor of a crisp distillation of their compositional strategies. Hedges, after Michael Kenna (2013) looks like the entrance to a topiary maze. The Fog of War, After Robert Mapplethorpe (2014), pictures an aircraft carrier at the bottom of a vertical composition, cruising forward amid a densely layered cloudscape worthy of J.M.W. Turner. Cloud Combat, after Alvin Langton Coburn (2020), shows the stratosphere populated by billowing cloud forms where the outer atmosphere is re-imagined as an arena for billowing cloud forms locked in a fantastical struggle. Remembering that esoteric literally means “inside of the earth,” this exoteric evocation of the sky gods seems like a timely embrace of a balanced world.
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Archana Horsting, “On the Fringe of the Field” @ Kala Art Institute to July 7, 2023.
About the author: Mark Van Proyen’s visual work and written commentaries emphasize the tragic consequences of blind faith in economies of narcissistic reward. Since 2003, he has been a corresponding editor for Art in America. His recent publications include Facing Innocence: The Art of Gottfried Helnwein (2011) and Cirian Logic and the Painting of Preconstruction (2010). To learn more about Mark Van Proyen, read Alex Mak’s interview on Broke-Ass Stuart’s website.