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Mapping Relief 

Kim Bissett at the Feinberg Gallery

Whatever else visual art may have to say, it always tells a practical story about how humans perceive objects in space. The eye speaks directly to the fingers, proposing sharp or soft edges. Indeed, drawing techniques are a kind of projection of touch, finding ways to grasp things at a distance; different kinds of line translate as fine textures, while masses of solid color or blank surface evoke obstacles or entities — things to bump into or walk around, veined with breathing room and passageways. In a sense, every imaginative two-dimensional depiction is a map, in much the same way virtual-reality scenarios are maps.

Kim Bissett’s 12 large-scale abstract drawings at the Audrey and Harvey Feinberg Gallery at Cain Park in Cleveland Heights examine this situation from the perspective of an artist who has been forced to change the way she responds to texture and volume. For many years Bissett was primarily a sculptor working in stone and bronze. The punishing labor finally caught up with her, however, causing extensive damage to the ulnar nerve in both of her arms. This is a condition that seriously impairs overall strength as well as the fine motor abilities of the hand. Suddenly and permanently, heavy-duty sculpting was a thing of the past.

In 2005, prior to surgeries that effected a partial cure, Bissett began making drawings using her feet and toes. It wasn’t her intention to make any kind of statement about her condition; it was simply the only way she could hold a piece of charcoal and produce marks on paper (around the same time, the artist became trapped in a bathroom stall because she didn’t have the strength to slide the latch back). Though most of the work on view at Feinberg Gallery has been completed in the last year using her hands, one 4-foot by 10-foot work called “Poet’s Walk” dates from the long, pain-filled months before her surgery, as doctors debated her diagnosis.

Footprints can be seen clearly along the margins, while toward the center, long, branching, curving charcoal lines and ink washes seem to ache as they gently intersect, like tree limbs shifting and creaking. “Poet’s Walk” is the only drawing in the exhibit executed on a single sheet of paper, without the collage techniques of cutting and layering that characterize the rest. It seems to unfurl in a single gesture across the long brown-painted wall at Feinberg Gallery, much like a scroll. Its horizontal orientation initially encourages a reading from left to right, but soon the eye is caught in mild tangles near the center as the mind combs and sorts, looking for recognizable shapes or taking satisfaction in the sinuous progress of a line as it moves alongside others, narrowing and thickening like wood grain.

But in most of her drawings here, Bissett explores density as much or more than line quality. “In the recent works I was able to work with a small Dremel [a grinding tool] for 45 minutes at a stretch, to cut the paper,” she says. Drawing in charcoal and ink on large sheets of creamy, thick Rives BFK etching paper, the sculptor reenacts some of the gestures of sculpting in a different key, piling up two-dimensional acts until they move beyond the gestures of mapping and begin incarnations of their own. Feelings of freedom and relief as the artist discovers new methods are often almost palpable in this new work.

“Spring Day” (2007) is roughly 6 feet by 8.5 feet and gives an overall impression of flattened, impending dimension. It’s big enough to dominate a typical interior wall and seems like it might be planning to expand even further. A sense of coiled, latent motion is communicated by the Dremel-cut layers, calculated to simulate those physical motions of seizing and tearing that are now beyond Bissett’s strength. Not that “Spring Day” is a violent vision — as the title suggests, it blooms. If it could be said to start anywhere, it starts in the middle, moving outward asymmetrically. On the left it terminates in the long straight edge of a piece of paper, steadying the composition almost in the way a pedestal would, but from the side. Black and taupe shards accumulate at the bottom. A collection of dark ocher fragments arches at the top, moving toward the center. There are few drawn lines here, and as soon as the actual properties of the paper become less legible — seen from across the room or in a photograph, for example — the work looks like an assemblage in stone, a collage of granite, alabaster and marble, streaked here and there with the grinding, flowing marks of long, slow, hard and heavy changes.
“Santa Ana Blackbird” (2007) conveys a different message. Bissett tells a story in connection with it. “There is a bird’s nest outside my studio window, and I found one of the fledglings on the pavement one morning. I wasn’t studying the birds until then, but I picked it up and held it and tried to get a sense of its frailty — what it might feel like to be carried aloft by the hot winds.”

The 8-foot by 8-foot meditation based on this event swoops low on the gallery’s brown wall. A large black shape of cut paper with a few white lines looks something like a dragon or a bird, as it juts up and over, connecting to a haphazard spine of paper shards. Some of these are also black or gray, and several others are green, orange, pink and even yellow — warm, like the summer winds that gain force around the downtown factory buildings along Superior Ave., where Bissett’s studio is located. Because of the heaviness of the black shape, the whole loose kite’s tail of torn and patched shapes seems about to fall, shot through with space and not enough time, already closing in on the floor. The brown wall actually helps this effect, suggesting other vertiginous possibilities: We could be gazing from above at a drowning archipelago.
Bissett’s drawings are hybrid creatures, paper sculptures that remember weight and strain as they redefine the artist’s relationship to the material world. Damaged nerves recover at a rate of about an inch a month, but as art merges with life, it measures the damage caused and healed by love. In such increments of passion and memory, Bissett’s work stretches for miles.

Kim Bissett, Feinberg Art Gallery, Cain Park, Lee Rd. at Superior, Cleveland Heights, Through August 17, 216.371.3000.

More by Douglas Max Utter

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