Ten Black Form

by Cliff Eyland, December 1999

Vanessa Paschakarnis employs the verbal language of minimalist art when speaking about her work, emphasizing the viewer's phenomenological experience confronting (for example) ten black forms, the central work in this exhibition. She writes that the shapes of the ten black forms reference empty crab shells, yet their individual character, the surface texture, the color - a metallic black - and specific details of their actual form give them a presence apart from any evoked imagery.

Covering parts of the floor, the forms inhabit the viewer's walking-space, build up a layer of tension within a gallery that keeps the visitor from any deliberate bypassing. The pieces literally reflect on the act of walking among them. The sculptural quality of the mass and density as objects is as important as their dynamic of embracing space and light. They divide the space into an above and an underneath yet keep it open enough to include a viewer in this process.

The ten black forms do reference imagery for an individual experience. The connotations that are associated with the shapes open up for specific formal relations. They rest without any definition in order to emphasize the importance of the moment of experience. [1] 

Much of Paschakarnis's work has a stark, weighty authority to it, and a monumental take-it-or-leave-it presence. It is "post-minimalist" sculpture, that is, sculpture that has the size, heft and some visible vestiges of minimalist art, but which does not take its cues from the rectilinear walls of the white cube art gallery the way classic minimalist art does.

Paschakarnis's ten black forms look as natural as rocks; depending on how they are lit, they absorb light like coal or reflect it in a range of slate grey tints: they are rich things. An actual crab shell could be thought of as the sculptural product of a natural process; Paschakarnis's sculpted crab shell forms could be read as a pun on nature in the tradition of post-minimalism. One is reminded of Eva Hesse's comment, when asked of she was "satirizing Minimalism", she replied that she was only punning on her own vision, if anything. [2]

Paschakarnis's art is post-minimalist art, but can also be addressed in terms of recent re/evaluations of the ancient "cabinet of curiosity". A curiosity cabinet was a taxonomical form that flourished in the era just before the scientific revolution in which natural and artificial things like art and crab shells were collected.

The cabinets of curiosity differed from later museological collections in that they included equally the works of humankind, often seen as intimate reflections of each other, and each in their way wonderful. Gradually, culture became privileged over nature, things wrought over things found, the "cooked" over the "raw". Eventually, the disciplinary museums would separate natural history from art and design. [3]

David Wilson's spectacularly weird Museum of the Jurassic in Santa Monica partly inspired Susan Gibson-Garvey's 1997 Theatrum Mundi exhibition. Gibson-Garvey applied with great success a sort of taxonomic antiquarianism to contemporary Atlantic Canadian art. Wilson and Gibson-Garvey encourage the contemplation of the art object as if it were a natural thing.

Contemporary life has much in common with the Age of discovery, when the brimming contents of cabinets of curiosity made a real guessing game of what was real and what was fake, what was natural and what was artificial. Thanks to contemporary technologies like genetic engineering not to mention artistic and commercial fancy, we do not say, as the ancient Portuguese sailor might, that we might find a unicorn somewhere in the world, rather we'll simply make one genetically.

In the 1600s Claude du Molinet puzzled over whether fossilized ammonite was "natural" or "artificial". "Molinet was not credulous in matters of natural history; elsewhere in his catalogue he doubted the existence of unicorns, sirens, and footless birds of paradise. But.he located the boundary between art and nature in forms that no longer seem in the least ambiguous to us." [4]

Fifty years ago Pollock said that he did not work "like" nature, but that he "was nature", meanwhile, Duchamp considered the act of artistic creation to be "mediumistic". In contemporary cultural and literary studies, critiques of artistic subjectivity often regard the artist almost as an unconscious agent of art, and not as a Promethean (read Picassoesque) creator. Ergo the artist herself as more nature than culture. Paschakarnis's art fits within a revival of curiosity cabinet culture that sees the differences between human and natural not just as having been over-blown, but also at the centre of debates about what we are. When Paschakarnis turns plaster, graphite and wax into outsized crab shells, we are moved to ask Molinet's questions again, but from a different vantage. We know that Paschakarnis's sculptures are not really giant crab shells, but we are not so sure about how the artistic processes that Paschakarnis the human "agent" uses to create the shells differ fundamentally from a crustacean's: not since the Renaissance have we been so unsure of the differences between what is artificial and what is natural, and Vanessa Paschakarnis's ten black forms help to highlight this dilemma.


[1] Vanessa Paschakarnis, unpublished statement, 1998, unpaginated
[2] Lucy Lippard, Eva Hesse (New York: Da Capo Press, 1976/1992) p.188
[3] Susan Gibson-Garvey, Theatru Mundi (Fredericton: Beaverbrook Art Gallery, 1997) p.17
[4] Lorraine Daston "Nature by Design", Picturing Science Producing Art ed. Caroline A.Jones and Peter Galison, (New York:Routledge) pp.232-251



Blue Moon, 2010 was exhibited at Sculpture Today: New Forces, New Forms; 2011/2012 at the Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park in Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA
Vanessa with her "Bestia Romana", 2009
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© Vanessa Paschakarnis