Deborah Klotz’s “traces” is a show featuring smart, handsome and often fascinating works that flit and flutter among media with uncanny fluency.
“Traces” includes sandcast glass sculptures with steel chain inclusions, drawings on pages of well-studied copies of Dante, microscope photographs, various types of prints, folios of cast-shaped handmade paper with wire-crotched nuggets and sculptures that combine these and other media as well.
Klotz’s sandcast glass works are particulary elegant. The series of six “Trace/Trail” oval-plate-shaped pieces stand in lighted and back-mirrored wall mounts in a presentation that almost transcends the objects – solid glass that is clear on one side and textured where the molten glass touched the sand in which it was poured. Within the glass float long steel chains reminiscent of dog tags, light switch pulls – or, more poetically, strands of DNA or say, a map of sandy wanderings.
“Milk and Honey #1,” for example, lists its material as “crotched steel objects, handmade paper, iron monoprints with ink, plaster, poured iron, cast glass, walnut ink.” Ironically, the demolition-site-like list doesn’t do a bad job describing the look of the piece. But it doesn’t convey its alchemical subtleties or how it develops as sculpture – or better, as craft: The glass and iron are both poured forms and these flow out like leaking feet from the center of the piece. Moving upward and outward are paper and crotched wire elements that take the form of blossom-like conical vessels. The rust-trace forms on the paper along with its withered edges furthers an aesthetic of ancient realms seen at a distance while drawing the viewer in close with hints of still-life and craft modes.
It’s like encountering a blossom in a garden of ancient history; it draws you in intimately, but holds you at a respectful arm’s length – as might the first blossom in your yard after a long white winter.
“Milk and Honey #1” is the first piece in “traces” and it immediately brings on the show’s dilemma: To what extent can we find or assign meaning to these works?
“Milk and Honey” is the well-known reference to the land of Israel from the Hebrew Bible’s story of Moses’ vision of the burning bush (Exodus 3: 1-22). Considering this and that “traces” is on view at the Maine Jewish Museum, it is commonsensical to try to interpret Klotz’s work primarily in terms of Jewish content. But this is a mistake that, unfortunately, would likely trip up all but the most experienced art audience – or anyone predisposed to see the work as fine craft.
In short, “traces” is a beautiful show that is very accessible if you approach it as fine craft or object-oriented concept-driven art.
Concept-driven art is now the leading form of contemporary art in Maine. It is conceptual art that values craftsmanship and finish instead of exerting conceptual art’s traditional trope of pushing execution to the side as a perfunctory necessity.
The problem is that in this context, Klotz’s work (accidentally?) calls out for interpretive analysis – as opposed to experiential or performative understanding. In the Judeo-Christian traditions, it’s called “exegesis” when applied to texts and “hermeneutics” in the broader sense of interpreting both verbal and non-verbal communications.
This is a problem, because anyone seeking to find satisfying meanings through hermeneutics (sorry about the seemingly hefty art-speech terms here, but please believe me that these have more to do with the history of Western religion and philosophy than anything hip in NYC) will either be left wandering unquenched in the desert or will get mere crumbs of Klotz’s content.
If, on the other hand, you follow Klotz’s formal (as in “design”) fascination with materials and the aesthetic and textural complexities, you can more easily access her poetic intertwining of things/materials/objects. “Traces,” after all, are physical impressions that things leave upon each other; they are markers of interactions, hints of history and bits of information. Traces are how we track our quarry, solve a crime or diagnose an illness. Traces are not the thing, but the weay to the thing: Traces mark an otherwise hidden path.
Traces also carry us from the hermeneutics-dominated tradition of Western art (i.e. the centuries Western cultural life was dominated by religious institutions) to 20th-century art and its unflagging focus on epistemology – the study of knowledge.
“Four Generations of a Journey by 36 Lamed Vovniks” is the one case when Klotz specifically hangs the meaning of a work on arcane Jewish mystical lore. It is an idea from the Talmud that posits there are 36 hidden holy people in the world at any given time.
Klotz’s numerological presentation (kabbalah or gematria?) of these on 144 pages (36 x 4 = 144) from Klotz’s college textbooks of Dante’s Inferno, Purgatory and Selections is somewhat disturbing given the anti-Semitism Dante brings to bear in these texts.
I see the plant forms in Klotz’s Dante drawings and want them to be the flowers that grow on the dust-dried battlefields. But the librarian in me has a problem with Klotz’s destruction of the books, and the context of Jewish culture makes this an even wobblier tightrope (as in May 10, 1933). Ultimately, Klotz leaves us dangling between the exegesis of static texts and her dynamic intentions as an artist.
Still, “traces” is a rich show for anyone interested in contemporary conceptual art, craft, alchemy, Judaica, sculpture or semiotics (the study of signs and symbols). It features beautiful and well-crafted work. But while it has many doors of welcome, none is particularly easy to open.
Freelance writer Daniel Kany is an art historian who lives in Cumberland. He can be contacted at: