“Sunrise: Recent Glass Sculpture,” Glass Quarterly

By D. Eric Bookhardt, Glass Quarterly Magazine

Gene Koss at Arthur Roger Gallery
August 3- September 14, 2013

Sunrist, 2013. Cast glass and steel. 144 x 165 x 117 inches. Photography: Mike Smith.

A surprising number of Midwestern artists have ended up in New Orleans over the years. Some became influential educators in local universities, where their work ethic set a certain tone even as their art often succumbed to the pervasive tropical surreality of their surroundings. Gene Koss, the founder of Tulane University’s glass program, exemplifies that work ethic, but his vision remains firmly rooted in the rural Wisconsin landscape, where he grew up on a family farm. His rural outlook can seem paradoxical from a fine arts perspective. Farming is hard work that requires great physical and emotional endurance, and generations of farm boys have looked to universities and the arts to escape the monotonous toil that defined the lives of their parents. Koss is a rare exception. His vision embraces the heartland ethos of soil, toil and tenacity, in works that can weigh more than eight tons and look as rugged as they are precisely constructed. Yet his single-minded pursuit of his unique vision has paid off, as his influence has only grown over the years. In an age when critical irony has become a default position in the art world, Koss celebrates not only the elemental physicality of the land and the people and machines that work it, but also their mythopoetic resonance.

Although he also produces smaller and more delicate objects, it is his larger, cast-glass and metal sculptures that set the tone and tenor of his oeuvre, and elaborate its roots in a Midwestern ethos of agricultural and mechanical endeavor. The title piece in the Arthur Roger Gallery show, Sunrise, is emblematic. More than 12 feet across and comprised of a free-form, weathered=steel pylon topped with a gently arching steel I-beam – a supine crescent studded with rectangular slabs of cast glass of differing colors – it can seem both chthonic and ethereal, evoking earthy and arboreal things, crowned with distillations of refracted light. The S-curves of the pylon recall the serpentine brushstrokes that Thomas Hart Benton employed in his painterly evocations of the Middle American landscape, but the glass components are fraught with suggestions of fire and ice. Koss says that the work was inspired by a view in west central Wisconsin, where he grew up and to which he regularly returns, a place where people “work the land and look up a valley at the Wisconsin ridges and hills as they toil.” It is a typical Koss explanation, but beyond any particular specificity of place, Sunrise also evokes a broader underlying sense of upper Midwestern gravitas, the verdant yet flinty aura of a land shaped by ancient glaciers and cultivated by evolving generations of farmers and farm machines.

In Koss’s world, bits of old metal machine parts assume the charged significance of dinosaur bones, as we see in a smaller untitled piece in which a corkscrew=shaped metal shaft serves as a counterweight to a cast-glass tablet with rune-like steel rods visible through its mottled surfaces. There is something almost osseous about the metal parts, a  hint of long expired vertebrae, while the mysterious glass tablet echoes the glacial geologic past. Another medium-size piece, part of his Sunrise series, employs similar strategies, but with a rectangular cast-glass tablet flecked with rusty ochre streaks held upright on a coiled spring structure attached to a threaded steel shaft used as a counterweight. Here, the archaic machine parts hint at the early origins of the industrial Revolution in a concoction that looks like it could have originated in one of Leonardo’s sketchbooks.

Not everything is so freighted with archaic industrial sensibilities. Wheel is as elegant as it is starkly minimal, a think shining, translucent white glass disk with a cleanly pointed steel axle through its center, in what amounts to a near-platonic form. And Levee Break, inspired by the failed federal levees that caused New Orleans to flood in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, features segmented steel rectangles topped with blue glass slabs, in another minimalist encounter between the elemental and the structural. But the elemental reigns supreme in his series of Drawings, squarish cast-glass slabs with rippled surfaces in which colored vitreous striations suggest fluid patterns of energy, frozen in time. Time may really be the key to everything here, the invisible baseline that underlies all of the geological and industrial convolutions that Koss so deftly conjures in works that employ specific formal references to evoke universal human experiences over the ages.

D. ERIC Bookhardt, a New Orleans art critic and journalist, contributes to Art Papers, Public Art Review and Gambit Weekly, among other publications.