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Project Series 4: Nancy Kyes

November 2 - December 19, 1999

Opening Reception: Saturday, November 6, 3-5 PM

"Hush: there is nothing in 10 dimensions that is not dilating the pupils of our eyes."

-Arthur Sze: Apache Plume,
THE REDSHIFTING WEB, 1998

Nancy Kyes transforms the simplest of everyday trash into extraordinary sculptures that reflect her unique process and rationale. Massive accumulations of hundreds of found objects, Kyes’s sculptures blend the attraction of everyday materials with current scientific theory, metaphysical concerns, and personal experience. All her works are efforts to try to comprehend and come to terms with the complexity of the universe and our place within it.

"My purpose is to arrest the ordinary perceptions of daily life for a moment so as to visualize, or superimpose, parts of ourselves, our culture, our universe-which cannot be readily observed, which we are still sorting out, yet which influence the way we think, the way we feel, and the way we evolve. It’s as though we could see with a microscope, a telescope, and the naked eye all at once."

blackbody radiation/DISH is Kyes’s work in progress. This exhibition presents two of what eventually will become five sculptures. Kyes creates her sculptures by hand; she binds and packs objects onto large armatures, weaving and manipulating the discrete objects together to create a singular entity. The dense, layered sculptures, Black Box #1 and Black Box #2, leave the viewer with a powerful visual impact of sheer mass and towering scale. The works also exhibit a human presence through the use of familiar objects and the references to the body and its activities.


"Using stuff you might find lying around your house or workplace or blowing around town, bits of matter thrown aside, I make a condensed mash--randomly twisting, tying, smashing, nailing, sewing--that becomes a sort of new material, which I then use to make sculpture. The process is one of building up layers, crushing them together, then building up again and again."

A highly intuitive artist, Kyes works almost organically, letting the materials guide her process. Her work reflects both the process and narrative potential of Assemblage in her use of found objects and their attendant reflections of daily life. Like Assemblage’s characteristic relationship between the found object itself and the memories and meanings carried within that object, Kyes’s work links the poetic quality of the object with the history inherent in its previous identity. In addition, the sheer number of combinations of objects, and their histories, link whole systems of information and meanings together.

"The more I manipulate the materials as one form instead of many, the more motion the overall form appears to have--it becomes a blur. Which is really what I’m after--the blurring effect."

blackbody radiation/DISH is Kyes’s second major series of work. Like her earlier sculpture, Plow: The Border Between Two Orders, and the Chakra Series, blackbody radiation/DISH grapples with issues of physics, spirituality, scale, movement, and the impact of ordinary objects in our daily lives. Almost 15 years ago, Kyes started picking up trash, driven by a sense of the waste and excesses of a materialistic culture. Eventually, she had accumulated a studio’s worth of material, and, at a critical juncture in her life, felt compelled to start working. She found herself intuitively smashing and binding objects of like colors into vessel-shaped forms that turned into the Chakra Series, a study of the physical manifestations of spiritual energy as expressed in the Hindu model.

"If a closed box made of any material is heated to a uniform temperature, the interior will become filled with electromagnetic radiation (photons [light]) with an intensity and spectrum determined by the temperature alone, independent of the composition of the box. Radiation with this intensity and spectrum is called blackbody, or thermal radiation." (Alan Guth, The Inflationary Universe.)

The ideas behind blackbody radiation/DISH materialized while working on the Chakra series. Interested in further exploring the idea of matter as energy, Kyes wanted to try to give visual shape to other scientific concepts, including wave/particle theory, chaos theory, and systems theory. Kyes decided to make a group of small, simple black boxes that might represent the cosmos and a companion piece, a white dish or radio telescope. Once she started actually working on the first box, it became apparent that what she was making was neither small nor simple. It was about five feet across and resembled a human head. She wondered, if the head was that big, how big would the leg be, and why was she making a "black body" when she was supposed to be picturing the universe? Kyes thought first of the Hindu goddess Kali--the goddess of darkness, the creator/destroyer of all things--but she soon was drawn back to principles of physics. She remembered that the term "blackbody" had something to do with cosmic background radiation.

"A blackbody is an idealized concept. However, on first approximation, we can think of almost everything in existence as a blackbody because its temperature is above absolute zero and it radiates energy. The sun, at about 6,000 degrees Kelvin, emits blackbody radiation as visible light. Human beings, at about 300 degrees Kelvin, emit radiation that can be seen at infrared frequencies. The universe itself may be the ultimate blackbody. As Alan Guth explains: "The universe today appears to be permeated with blackbody radiation at a temperature of 2.73 degrees Kelvin--the cosmic background radiation--which we interpret as a remnant afterglow of the heat of the early universe." In other words, it’s the radiation left over from the Big Bang, now cooled and detectable at microwave radio frequencies."

When looking at her sculptures, Kyes wants us to see both a micro-version of reality-a single object, a comb, or tarot card-and an enlarged version-the sculpture as a singular mass. Through the tangled, interwoven nature of the physical work itself, Kyes provides a visual model for a very complex system of thought.

"In a radical departure from how physicists thought about energy, Max Planck developed the blackbody radiation law in 1900. His discovery opened the way for the exploration of the quantum mechanical order of existence--the micro world. This century-long exploration has yielded the knowledge that our very complex, everyday world emerges from a set of comparatively simple natural laws. For example, a quark, fooling around over and over with a few other quarks inside the nucleus of an atom, can turn into a human being capable of finding quarks, even though this could not have been predicted from the underlying laws. Exactly how this emergence happens is still a big unknown and the subject of a great deal of research. It is generally acknowledged, however, that indeterminacy, an inherent aspect of the micro world, plays a direct role in the creation of the particular condition or branch of our ordinary reality."

Initially, the sculptures attract us through formal qualities of scale, mass, and color, but, on further examination, Kyes has clearly invested them with much more. While Kyes explores theories of matter and energy, she also creates work with a connection to the human body--in the head and leg forms of Black Box #1 and Black Box #2. Although larger than life-size, the sculptures reference the human form, which provides us with an emotional connection to the work, and through that, a link to the vastness of the universe.

"The sculptures, Black Box #1 and #2, are layer upon layer, system upon system, engaged in an indeterminate interplay. This interplay creates larger, more complex layers and systems, also engaged in indeterminate interplay. Blackbody radiation is emitting from the boxes--the voice of the cosmos, if you will. DISH, a radio telescope, is listening."

Nancy Kyes, Artist
Rebecca McGrew, Curator