Kendall Buster's large-scale sculptures exist
somewhere between object and architecture, functioning as both sights
and sites. Experienced visually, they appear as autonomous, self-contained
entities, decidedly abstract yet evocative of machine parts or manufactured
devices. Experienced with the body, they become architectural shapers
of space. Their openings invite the viewer to become a visitor, physically
entering the sculpture to experience it not as a thing but as a place.
For the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, Buster has created an installation
entitled Sitelines and Suitors. The installation comprises two
large sculptures, constructed on site in the Museum from modules crafted
in the artist's studio. Each of the structures has been put together in
the same manner. Bent and welded steel rods form the modules, which are
then bolted together to constitute an outer skeleton. Inside the skeleton,
a second metal frame defines an interior space. Thin, membrane-like coverings
are stretched over both the exo- and endoskeletons. The white-enameled
steel framework of one sculpture is covered with sheets of white paper,
stiffened with size (a gluey medium) that makes them taut like drum heads.
The other sculpture's two structures have raw steel frames over which
are stretched charcoal gray screening. Differences in color and material
create a dynamic relationship between the sculptures, played out through
dichotomies of light and dark, translucency and transparency.
Like many modernist sculptors, Buster creates shapes that can be appreciated
as purely abstract forms, but that also possess a "strong associative
principle," calling to mind a variety of other objects. (1) The white
sculpture in the Kemper Museum installation stretches across the floor
in the rough shape of the letter Y, its arms resembling blimps and its
stem a bottleneck. Buoyant and pneumatic, it suggests two airships that
have come to light on the gallery floor. The black sculpture is two virtually
identical bottle-like shapes, one standing upright and the other on its
side. Compared with their white partner, they have a more menacing character,
evoking canisters used to hold volatile gas or explosives.
Canisters and blimps are containers
whose interiors are normally inaccessible, but Buster's sculptures feature
portals that permit entry and exploration of their interior spaces. These
interiors are defined by wall planes that are flatter than those of the
curving outer shells, imparting to them the character of architectural
chambers. Adding to this architectural aspect are window-like openings
at the sculptures' extremities that provide visual passages between interior
and exterior. These windows and the portals create the sightlines suggested
by the installation's title.
Buster seeks to create a tension between the desire to be embraced by
her sculptures and the simultaneous fear of being trapped inside them.
Low entries oblige many people to bend down to enter both the white sculpture
and the horizontal side of the black sculpture, increasing the visitors'
awareness of their own bodies in relation to the "body" of the
work of art. A person entering the white sculpture is enveloped by a paper
architecture at once smothering and fragile, and may sense what the artist
calls an "oppressive tenderness." According to the artist, occupying
the cage-like vertical and horizontal structures may feel like standing
in a silo or a rifle barrel, respectively.
Entry into Buster's creations may produce sensations that are unfamiliar,
even uncomfortable. Among these may be the awareness of being looked at
by people outside the sculpture, which may give rise to a certain degree
of self-consciousness. People inside the black sculpture can not only
see out of the screened walls but are also visible through them. Those
inside the white structure are largely concealed but still perceptible
as shadowy presences through the paper membranes, and are directly visible
through the sculpture's door and windows.
Issues of visibility and the
power of vision have engaged Buster since the mid-1980s, when she read
Jacques Lacan's theories of the gaze and Michel Foucault's analysis of
modern surveillance. Lacan argued that the human subject is alienated
from itself through its awareness of the gaze - a gaze that reduces the
self to an object seen by others. In Lacan's words, "You never look
at me from this place from which I see you." Conversely, "what
I look at is never what I wish to see." (2) Foucault found a powerful
architectural manifestation of modern surveillance in the panopticon.
Invented by Jeremy Bentham in the late eighteenth century, the panopticon
was a circular prison with a central tower that permitted the constant
oversight of inmates while fostering in them a sense of their subjection
to the "sovereign gaze." (3)
Buster explored the dynamic of the gaze and the related dialectic of enclosure
and disclosure through an untitled piece she built at the Diane Brown
Gallery in New York in 1986. A cubic structure with a maze-like interior
of narrow corridors, its walls were perforated by slits at various levels
affording sightlines from within as well as from without, and providing,
according to the artist, "an element of voyeurism." In the late
1980s Buster created more hermetic pieces - large sheet metal structures
that resembled both organisms and machines. These sculptures were tightly
sealed except for small openings that suggested peepholes for an unseen
presence lurking within. By the early 1990s Buster was covering curving
steel frames with metal plates to create chambered structures resembling
armored vehicles, with door-like openings into their interiors and slits
in their walls. As the decade progressed Buster adopted paper, screening,
and greenhouse netting as coverings for her metal skeletons, incorporating
gradations of transparency of the sort she continues to explore today.
With Double Chalice: Joined and Separated (1996) and Long
Pierce (1997), Buster introduced implicit sexual content into her
art. (4) Each of these works consists of a pair of screen-covered steel
skeletons, open to entry on either end and interlocking at the center.
The composition suggests, in Buster's words, a "mating machine,"
with the circular opening of the female side receiving the probe of the
male element. Depending upon which side of the sculpture the visitor enters,
he or she may identify either with the penetrator or the penetrated.
For her Kemper Museum installation Buster initially considered a further
exploration of sexual dualism through the creation of three sculptures
that would be designated the "bride" and the "bachelors."
This concept was informed by Buster's reading of Marcel Duchamp's notes
on his seminal work of art, The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors,
Even, whose imagery of what Buster calls "mechanical courtship"
has long fascinated the sculptor. Buster decided, however, to endow her
sculptures with both male and female aspects - phallic and womblike. She
also replaced the terms "bride" and "bachelors" with
the single word, "suitor."
The word "suitor" usually denotes a man who courts a woman,
but since Buster's sculptures are both male and female, each of them may
play suitor to the other. Furthermore, they also beckon to the visitor,
who becomes the suitor and, as Buster says, "enters into courtship
with these objects." The desire to enter the sculptures, to burrow
into their bodies, to feel oneself enveloped by them, can be powerfully
erotic. The web of sightlines cutting through the sculptures also activates
what Buster calls "the eroticism of looking, and being looked at."
From both inside and out the viewer is additionally seduced by the handcrafted
quality of the sculptures, sensually rewarding both on the level of overall
form and in the details of the materials and technique. Ultimately, the
experience of Kendall Buster's Sitelines and Suitors renews our
awareness of the fundamental connection between art and eros - the wellspring
of life itself.
Associate Professor of Art History
The University of Kansas, Lawrence, KS