The Fluidity of Felling and the Solidity of Form
Visions Art Quarterly, Spring 1994
by Andy Brumer
Speaking of the Spanish poet, Antonio Machado, Robert Bly (whose wonderful translations of Machado are gathered in a book titled Times Alone) has said that he is “one of the most loveable poets of the twentieth century.” So me might say similar things about the effervescent Joe Slusky, who has lived in or around Berkeley since 1960.
Slusky’s sculpture from the late 1960’s and early 1970’s bear and important relation to his recent work. Slusky’s early works were flowingly organic metal pieces “reinforced” with plastic filler molding and spray-painted in cool monochromatic silver shades. A tremendous tension erupted in these pieces via Slusky’s playfully surrealistic intertwining of cylindrical pipes, bulbous forms, spheres, planks and mesh grids, and their somber allusions to missiles, tanks, jet bomber chassis, and other military apparatus. In their ironic, Pop-sixtyish stance, these works spoke out strongly against America’s involvement in Southeast Asia in the anti-war idiom of the day. With their impeccably smooth acrylic lacquer car paint finish , they also suggested California’s increasing devouring automobile culture, particularly that with Los Angeles, where the artist grew up.
The mid-seventies saw Slusky move away from the monochromatic spray painting of his ever abstract work, and an end to the use of bondo as a supplementary shaping agent. His sculptures became slightly more geometric, constructivist and cubistic, and a touch less organics in appearance than before, though they maintained their surrealistic “modus operandi.” A poet of the metal “line” lyrically exploring and annunciating the rhythms of space, Slusky’s work during this period reflected the Bay Area Funk artists found-object, scrap-metal, collage-based aesthetic.
Slusky also began at this time to hand-paint his pieces elaborately (also, as before, with acrylic lacquer “car” paint), with a wild and multi-colored array of detailed marks. While somewhat reminiscent of the work of Robert Hudson, with whom he studied while a graduate student as UC Berkeley, Slusky’s style of painting his sculptures is more gestural, improvisational and expressionistic. This colorful, comedic dance of images of the metal’s surface replaced the more somber hand molding of the bondo, though methods of adornment served the purpose of augmenting the articulation of the sculptures’ basic rhythms.
Today, Slusky’s work maintains the muscular thrust of his monochromatic period, through the hand painting adds a sense of good humor. In fact, while the wit and whimsy of a Slusky’s work has been acknowledged and discussed by Bay Area art critics for the better part of three decades (“We can use him,” wrote the late Alfred Frankenstein in The San Francisco Chronicle), art writers have curiously failed to consider that his “humor” straddles a Dionysian darkness as well.
Not “funny” in a facile or glib way, these works originate in the psyche’s depths where humor and anxiety, the friendly and the ferocious, dance inextricably drawn to one another. Freud knew this, as did the poet Wallace Stevens (one of Slusky’s favorites) who wrote, “Only in excess continual, is there an end to sorrow…” In fact, this co-habitation of opposites, this gathering of multiple psychic and physical forces in works displaying the epitome of sculptural unity, may very well represent the supreme accomplishment of Slusky’s work.
Slusky majored in architecture at UC during the early 1960’s, and today teaches freehand drawing and “visual studies” to architecture students at the same institution. As a student, Slusky felt constricted by architecture’s practical demands, but found the freedom of making sculpture irresistible. One can still detect in much of Slusky’s sculptures today the vestiges of an architectural sensibility. Slusky speaks of his interest in architecture, and the relationship his sculpture forms with it. “I’m using the basic vocabulary of architecture before the elements take on a utilitarian or functional form. Here ( in sculpture) these elements are at the service of the imagination, and for me to describe whet is happening in the work I would have to say ‘I connected such and such a form and attached this and perhaps wanted to intersect or sub-divide some element,’ but I don’t believe that the elements stay as that. I believe in this kind of metaphorical power, that these relationships have other meanings than just a vertical and just a plane in relationship”.
The word “metaphor” in the above statement clearly stands out as a sign pointing to an understanding of Slusky’s work, as a poetic vision informs both the artist's sculpture and his comments about it. “I believe,” Slusky continues, “that what constitutes a vital work of art is that the individual probe deeply into oneself and that way he or she with have something to say to the rest of us.” Though he labors steady and intensely over each sculpture Slusky’s method of work is for the most part intuitive. “ I like the unknown,” he begins, “of discovering this structure, this sculpture that’s inside , and the process of its evolution, and the development in bringing the piece forth, and the gestation period that’s part of this process. That is why I do sculpture.”
Jungians often speak of the “house,” with its many rooms, chambers and levels, as symbolically representing the self. Slusky composes with equal adroitness the empty spaces tucked within his sculpture’s metal armature, and the metallic “lines” themselves extending into space. Calypso, finished in 1984 and permanently installed in the lobby of the San Francisco Water Department building in Millbrae (the piece was commissioned through the San Francisco Art Commission) and Calliope, a larger outdoor sculpture commissioned by the City of Berkley in 1979 for the Berkeley Marina , represent just two examples of this kind of transcendental architecture. In fact , Calliope gave Marina workers fits trying to keep kids not only off the jungle-gym like bars and planks, but out of the masterfully refined nooks and crannies of the piece’s internal areas. Some smaller pieced by Slusky clearly display a distinctly figurative (though always abstract) element as if the artist wanted not only to construct these metaphorical “buildings,” but also felt a need to provide appropriately scaled characters to dwell inside them.
A visit to the artist’s Ashby Street studio in Berkeley at almost any hour of the day or night with find Slusky busily hand-painting his pieces. His painstaking patience here seems almost antithetical to the frenetic animation of finish brush marks themselves. The Berkeley Marina piece, for example, measures over 20 feet in length and more than 10 feet in height. The artist used a tiny watercolor brush in tattooing the entire surface of the work with hundreds of circles, half moons, spirals, squares, triangles, and a host to other more cryptic and eccentric symbols that resound with archetypal associations. In fact, Slusky has even expressed the desire to return to this specific piece to paint it some more.
When Slusky first began painting his sculptures this way, he would often refer to the metal itself as a “stretched canvas.” Like Jackson Pollock, Franz Kline and the other Action Painters, Slusky defines his process in making art as a transference between his physical being and the object he is making. He says, “I’m fascinated with the play between the idea of the creature that is of flesh and fluid and bone transferring idea, ephemeral information, to the harder substance…”
These marks, then, assume the quality of DNA, carrying the artist’s aesthetic code” across the border between subjective and objective experience. Slusky, after setting down a series of marks on metal, often will cover them with another solid coat of paint. He then uses sandpaper to “excavate” the occluded images until, as in a cloisonné, they appear imprinted in a bed of steel and paint. Indeed, the artist himself has referred to his work as “fossilizations of internal thought processes…”
Slusky draws prolifically, and though his drawings establish an explicit dialogue with his sculpture, they do differ from his three dimensional work in important ways. As opposed to a single autonomous sculptural image and object, the drawings present extremely wild communities of images, virtual cities of phantasmagorically rendered figures and shapes cluster over the entire surface of the paper.
Slusky oscillates between thinking about his drawings as a limbering-up process of his “sculptural” muscles and imagination, and as separate works in themselves. If not working on a sculpture or teaching, Slusky is usually sketching away at new colorful, lyrical dreamscapes. Like so many of his sculptures, they are, in a word, beautiful.