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Objects Between Subjects

Making a Planet Out of a Pillow: Sheila Klein Dresses the World

Linda Brady Tesner, Director - Gallery of Contemporary Art, Lewis & Clark College

The first time I met Sheila Klein, I knew she would alter the way I saw the world - for the better. I had been asked by the Regional Arts and Culture Council to serve on a jury for a small public art commission for an ignominious government building in downtown Portland. The location was Multnomah County's Mead Building (421 S.W. Fifth Avenue), a rather drab office space; the site was a large picture window that allowed a gaping view into the building lobby. But here was the glitch: The Mead Building is actually a wayside in county corrections, a place where People report to their parole or probation officers, where individuals submit to blood and urine tests. Protecting the privacy of those using the building was paramount in the design requirements; sparing the street pedestrians a dismal view of the security guard and metal detector in the lobby was another consideration.

Making art for a place where people would rather not have to go seemed a Herculean proposal in itself. As Klein herself commented, the Mead Building project was small compared to the scale she typically works in. The size of the window was a mere 10 x 20 x 8 feet; the budget was only $40,000 - small by public art standards. But Something about the design limitations spurred Klein to enter the competition. In her initial letter of interest, she wrote:

I work on projects by pointing out relationships. Retranslating and transforming information and then giving it a visual order is a goal of my work. I imply ideas dealing with experience which are meant to create hope, wonder, and remind us of the potential magic of the environment. Collaborating with the circumstances of the situation generally yields results... I am a crusader for giving the city some living room. Making the city a home full of places you want to be. I am a eradicator of the banal, boring, and bland. Yet, I love the pedestrian. I truly believe the city is a kind of Oz.

The jury was hooked. We were fascinated, hopeful, and optimistic that Klein could produce a piece that would meet or exceed the difficult design criteria. Klein's ultimate solution is a permanent installation called Show and Hide, a theatrical and kinetic piece involving multiple layers of drapes and shades that constantly open and close to create ever-changing patterns, a pun on the notion of "window dressing." The fabrics Klein used for the drapes are tough, techy materials, the kind used for high-performance athletic gear The motorized mechanisms that operate the horizontal opening-and-closing of the drapes as well as the vertical up-and-down of the shades are computer-controlled to create different patterns of layers. Sometimes the curtains form strong blocks of color; at other times the fabrics merge to create mesmerizing moire effects. Klein's installation effectively protects the dignity of those who use the building while providing a droll view for pedestrian and vehicular traffic outside. As Klein describes Show and Hide, "The retail window isn't selling anything on display and the interior doesn't stay in its place."

Klein has built a career out of jolting the urban arena with visual wit and beauty. Since the 1980's she has been involved in major, high-profile art installations with a crossover to architecture and design. For most of the 1990's Klein was designing the Hollywood/Highland Metro Station, the subway stop near Grauman's Chinese Theatre in Los Angeles. She worked with the architectural firm Dworsky Associates from the inception of the subway plan to ensure that her installation melded with the architecture. In fact, Klein's work, Underground Girl (1999), is the architecture. As one descends from the street into the subway tunnel, Klein's pendant piece, ICU2, projects giant images of Klein's own eyes (with morphing irises), coyly winking and blinking at the passengers. For those who are disembarking at the station, the entire platform has been transformed into a visage of the interior of a woman's body. The support beams and struts evoke an architectural pelvis in curvaceous uterine forms, while soft pink light creates a subtle fleshy quality. The passage from subway tunnel to street side becomes a metaphorical birthing from the depths underground into the light of day above.

Klein has quipped, "I want to dress the world," and much of her public work takes that motto literally. Starting in 1983, she began playing around with photomontages that combined landmarks with architectural embellishments - a building draped with a necklace, for example. By 1989, Klein reached an important milestone in her career, which allowed her to test her ideas on a much grander scale. She was chosen to participate in Sculpture Chicago with a massive outdoor piece called Commemorative Ground Ring. The work was made of sandblasted, polished, and etched aluminum and featured architectural details appropriate from Chicago's best-loved monuments. Sited on the ground, the Ring looked as if it had just fallen off some gigantic finger. The piece was eventually purchased for the Chicago Historical Society by the Miro Fund.

From Sculpture Chicago, Klein's quest to accessorize the urban landscape became even more ambitious. She Began tinkering with stock industrial materials, traffic lights in particular. Klein recalls how, when living in Los Angeles, as she drove home from the studio late at night along La Cienega Boulevard, she would see the traffic lights as emeralds, rubies, and topazes of the street. For her first experiment in traffic lights-cum sculpture, Klein fabricated Traffic Necklace, an immense "accessory" meant to drape a building facade. This was an opportunity for Klein to actualize a piece that had existed previously only in photomontage form. The Spanish artist Antoni Miralda knew of Klein's idea and encouraged her to build Traffic Necklace as a contribution to his Honeymoon Project, the conceptual, ongoing performance piece Miralda orchestrated to "marry" the Statue of Liberty in New York to the statue of Christopher Columbus in Barcelona. Klein's architectural riviere was meant as a "wedding gift" for the actual ceremony, which took place in 1992 in Red Rock Canyon, just outside of Las Vegas. For about two weeks, Traffic Necklace adorned the Aladdin Casino on the Strip.

During the same year Klein was selected to participate in an exhibition called One Nine Special, a temporary exhibition housed in Union Station in Los Angeles. There Klein created an enormous cincture out of red, green,and amber traffic lights/gems; she called it Urban in reference to the idea that even the urban landscape deserves indulgent embellishment. In the Lewis & Clark College exhibition, Urban is sited in a sunken garden just south of Fields Center for the Visual Arts, looking like a fancy cocktail ring housed in a grassy jewel box.

Klein's fascination with the use of industrial lighting and materials continued with another major commission. In 1992 Klein was selected to create a project for the Federal Aviation Agency traffic control tower at the Los Angeles International Airport. Playing off the masculine image of the tower, Klein "femmed" the structure by applying a 17-by-20-foot blinking, egg-shaped medallion that protrudes off the tower like an exploded rose window. The piece, XX Marks the Spot (completed in 1996), represents a belly, or a breast, or a universe of sorts, completely self-contained. Within the bulge is a graphic made from 250 runway light programmed to change every second in 60-second cycles to form a series of patterns based on the imagery of air traffic coupled with an abstraction of the endangered El Segundo butterfly, which lives on the dunes west of the airport.

Even as recently as this year, Klein has been making/building anthropomorphic jewelry-sculpture to grace Southern California palms. Two Klein installations were included in a temporary outdoor exhibition along Santa Monica Boulevard in the city of West Hollywood. Pierced Palm (2202) is a stainless steel and aluminum loop that "pierces" the trunk of a palm tree, resembling an exotic, arboreal nose ring. Its sister piece, Palm Ear (2002), is similarly an adorned palm tree with two teardrop bobs of stainless steel and aluminum hanging from the tree fronds.

Currently Klein is at work on Leopard Sky, a site concept for the international arrivals roadway at the George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston. It is leopard print rendered as architecture. In this work, which will be installed on the ceiling of a covered auto passage, Klein has conceived a three-dimensional pattern in animal spots. the work consists of a backdrop of a denim like graphic that completes panels of leopard spots sequined with convex traffic morrow and lights. Who would think that dressing the world could be so glamorous?

Critics have called Klein a "pop artist," but that term is far too limited to describe the breadth and scope of Klein's vision. In fact, Klein bristles at any label that pigeonholes an artist too narrowly. In an attempt to describe her art form, Klein characteristically devised a visual tool. She divided a pie chart equally into sections: Art, Architecture, Sculpture, Textiles, Design, Installations, Fashion, and Theatre. Slicing through the boundaries of all these denominations is a spiral spelling out "sheila sheila sheila sheila."

In light of the range of art Klein has created, one might wonder if the artist is capable of working in a more intimate scale. Indeed, Objects Between Subjects at the Gallery of Contemporary Art at Lewis & Clark College proves that Klein's acute wit and technical bravura are equally well-matched to more human-scale objects. At the exhibition entrance, located in the Alumni Circle of the College campus, is Strand (2000), a hengelike ring constructed of nylon Lycra stretched over a steel frame. Upon closer look one notices that the stretched fabric forms paris of pants that create colonnade around the circle. Like many of Klein's works, Stand serves both as sculpture to observe and as structure to inhabit. Standing nine feet high, Stand fells both protective (like a fortress) and fanciful (like a playground structure).

If Stand exudes masculine qualities in iconography, color, and scale, then Klein's most recent work, Bonnet Nave(2202), is the yin to Stand's yang. Bonnet Nave evolved out of a series she produced in 2001 called Rain Bonnets. Klein was destined to receive an vintage plastic rain bonnet - the kind our mothers used to buy from Woolworth's and keep in their purse in case of a downpour - from a friend who was cleaning out her aunt's attic. The rain bonnet had never been worn and still sported an auspicious price tag - $.99 from S. Klein on Union Square. This modest item spawned leaps of associations for Klein about the shape of those old rain bonnets: how they look so much like a proscenium arch; how they were part shelter and part accessory; how something as simple as a head covering can define a moment or monument in time. With Rain Bonnets Klein exploded the traditional idea and started to make several bonnets that were drastically supersized yet still, oddly, usable in a theatrical way.

From this sprang Bonnet Nave, a nearly roomsize "rain bonnet" made of polyester organza and nylon mesh over an aluminum armature. The purple, mauve, and pink fabrics drape the frame in the most sensuous and voluptuous folds. From the back the work resembles some ancient, hulking, mammothlike beast, or the back of a hunched crone. From the front one realizes that Bonnet Nave is a structure; there is an entrance to a womblike space, a play-cave, a shelter from some imaginary storm. When Klein exhibited Bonnet Nave at the Edison Eye Gallery near her hometown of Bow, Washington, last spring, people kept approaching her with their own interpretations of the work. Their comments displayed a variety of ethnic, religious, and feminine associations:Bonnet Nave conjured a babushka, a snood, a wimple, a mantilla, a shawl, a cowl, a shroud, a burqa.

Floatzone CapsuleA pervasive theme in Klein's work is the notion of envelopment. For this exhibition, Klein has installed three works she calls Floatzone Capsules. These are ten-foot-tall tents or pods made of nylon mesh that hang from the gallery ceiling and hover a few inches off the floor. Visitors are welcome to climb into a Floatzone Capsule (each work could structurally hold at least two people) and experience the feeling of being supported in space. Each Floatzone Capsule can be gently swung to and fro, spin on its single axis attached to the ceiling, or hang still. The visitor determines how active or passive the piece will be.

Klein is highly aware that her work explores useful objects with imaginary purpose, and she encourages her audience to experiment. Klein's space-agey foam Pillow Planet (2002), for example, are intended to be taken off their shelves, hugged, and lounged upon - "teddy bears for the 21st century," Klein remarks. Phoam, Phoam Mat Island, and Phoam Cloud Curtain playfully suggest mini environments and experiences, like floating on a pond in springtime. Each work is meant to pique the visitor's ability to fantasize. It is possible that for each "phoam" Pillow there is a human Le Petit Prince to inhabit Klein's quixotic planet.

Other objects in the exhibition invite further queries into form and supposed function. Hassock Column (2001) is a vertical pile of five foam-and-galvanized-steel ottomans that create an elegant column, yet individually each hassock is designed for comfortable sitting. Still other works in Objects Between Subjects are more personal expressions of design. Trying Once Again to Make The Connection Between All Things (1996) is a sophisticated graphic wall sculpture made entirely of intermeshed coat hangers. My Pants, My Dad's Pants (1999) is the most self-referential work in the exhibition. After Klein's father died, the artist kept some of his clothes, then eventually decided to rivet them against her own discarded trousers. The effect is a portrait of father and daughter, expressed by the overlapping two pairs of pants. My Pants, My Dad's Pants was developed at the same time asStand, evidence of the level to which Klein explores spatial and environmental relationships.

Klein was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, but as a self-professed "gypsy," she has lived in Israel, Mexico, Los Angeles, and Ojai, California, with several stops in Seattle and northern Washington. She now resides in Bow, a post office-only town in the bucolic Skagit Valley of Washington state, about 60 miles north of Seattle. She lives there on a farm with her husband, artist Ries Niemi, and her sons, Rebar and Torque. Her remove from the more bustling arts communities of metropolitan America does not prevent her in the least from playing on a grand stage to an international audience, specially when it comes to major public arts commissions. Klein defies the usual definitions of "Northwest artist" in favor of her own hybrid as an artist working on the global level.

So what do Bonnet Nave or a Floatzone Capsule or a Pillow Planet have in common with massive architectural jewelry or an exotic mirrored animal print? "I guess I envision a different kind or world visually, and I am building it a little at a time," Klein says. Although few of Klein's works are figurative, all of her pieces imply human adjacency. Each work serves to cozy up its surroundings and lend humor and humanity to its environment. Each piece describes a play between material, process, and concept; each object exudes a tension between overload and elegance, simplicity and complexity, aesthetic pleasure and mind-bending. I once heard Klein remark that, for most people, two plus two equals four, but for an artist, two plus two equals purple. Klein amplifies that equation.

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