Monday, January 23, 2012

Earth is Always Talking Along the Fault Lines

Tucked away in plain sight in Madison County, Missouri, there dwells an unmapped caldera of an artist, a Melville in the customs house, unabashed in his Joycean “silence, exile, and cunning.” His name is Bill Knight, and in recent weeks I have had the great good fortune to spend hours in focused conversation with him, and his indigenous stone sculptures.

Seeing the works in their variety, touching them, feeling them both tactilely and vibrationally, has stirred me to my depths, suggestive as they are of a fantasy place, a Shenandoah, or an even earthier Glocca Morra. They seem to obtain to an almost painfully beautiful biosphere, where such strange and wondrous objects might be found strewn willy-nilly amongst Bonsai trees and Tibetan sand paintings.

If one is lucky, an encounter with extraordinary art forces a confrontation, or summons in one the willingness to confront one's own vast ignorance of the world. I am just such a fortunate tyro, learning from Bill Knight and these perturbed objects of his creation how to fruitfully think, talk and write about stone sculpture. Until I'm far more accomplished, I'll restrict my role here as deliverer of Bill's unvarnished thoughts, prompted, perhaps unearthed, by my probing:

"They don't need names; they don't exist in language! If one day they become objects of commerce then we’ll have to have ways of referring to them. But until then, no names." --Photo and words by Bill Knight

On the relationship between his use of Missouri relics to Michelangelo's marbles...

Michelangelo worked with quarried cubes, soft rock, carving chalk lines along the Cartesian grid. Found rocks are much more intransigent—will they break in two, three, four, ten, or more pieces? Found rocks are odd shapes, not large: one can locate something both difficult and small in them. Found rocks suggest nothing: they are fine the way they are. Sculpting overrides the way the rock is, it simplifies the rock from a much more complicated condition, roughness is taken away, husks are ground off with carbon-based pneumatic drivers and diamond wheels. These [processes, material and conceptual] are totally outside of Michelangelo’s perfect system.

Bill looks to Japanese style...

God only knows where it came from—an honoring of the pre-existing condition of the stone.

On the stones, their colored states, and their provenance...

This part of Missouri was a volcanic region, and is filled with pyroclastic rocks (broken by fire), pieces essentially of exploded volcanoes. My valuation of local rock is in part a rejecting of imported stones—no need to ship from Vermont! I can live without that, I can find something valuable here in this neighborhood.

These are the reds and greens of igneous geology: alkaline-based magmas or hematites with respiratory pigments, iron oxidation creating energy for life. Some are colored like a trout with an iridescent aquamarine, first noticed by me via my camera lens. The camera instructed me, it could see the colors first: digital brains prismatize things, achromatizing them, [shaping perception]. Lately, stone culture has fallen for glitter, moving ever more toward gold, moving toward the stone itself as money.

I work with hard rocks like Rhyolite Porphyry. Porphyry is a purple stone, imperial. Roads are built with it, it's so obdurate and refractory. John Keats' poem The Eve of St. Agnes has a character [a successful lover] named Porphyro who personifies those very qualities. Rhyloite is formed from lava ash dating from 1.4-1.7 billion years ago, one-tenth of the age of the universe. Geology is cosmology. Geology is the founding science, the one where people first looked around and asked where we are.

On the hazards, physical...

It’s an awful business, staring at a rock, made worse by dealing with toxic dust and all that entails. I use breathing tubes, a mask, my lungs have surely been adversely affected. This art requires pneumatic chisels, diamond wheels, saws. The main tool is the right angle grinder, four inches in radius spinning 10,000 rpms—it’s shrieking loud, one has to cover one’s ears, one’s eyes, sharp edges fly out into your face. My eyes, my vision, there's been some damage. You have to take off your clothes before going in the house, the infernal dust. There are water lines involved, polishers, pads, it’s very much machine-based. Let the tool do what it can do and say what it can say—see what this ignorant tool, this infernal machine combustion does in fact do.

"And if the tools are the mouths and the tongue—the sculptures are themselves the words."

On the hazards, psychic...

The energy consumption involved has weighed terribly on me. No way to avoid that the sculpture is a result of the destruction of the planet; goddamned machines are eating the world. It’s zesty work, that, the releasing a potential, causing the chemical reaction that releases energy, the exothermic electric potentialities. And the people, we’re the filaments, we’re receiving the energy. We've eaten the earth—having the requisite calories to do the work, we've created machines to increase our wealth; we've unleashed the machines on the rock and most probably the original wealth that's been eaten out eating the stones. Herds of cars instead of herds of beasts that the land once did carry, and the result—20,000 kinds of mega fauna gone!

" Rubbing stick gets the nice articulation. Here is the junction, so proud of it."

The rocks make us...

The chert from Knobs Lick is the same material from which the Cahokians' axes were fashioned. Spear points carved from chert killed the animals in the hunt. Chert in some sense made us. It was here two million years before humans discovered that by breaking rocks you could get something sharp. That we could break them, collect them, carry them around, kill with them—if that hadn't happened we wouldn't be who we are.

People like rocks; many are rock crazy. Rocks know things; they possess a characterizing and deep form of intelligence. The bluff is saying something; the shape it has chosen is an expression of will.

"And Chert is the hardest of them all!"--Bill Knight; Photo by Steve Hull
On the mysterious barricade between sculptor and sculpture...

There is a fault in this work, the fault of shining every surface. Polishing is a fault, shining up rocks, hiding all the intelligence of the rock, dumbing it down. In the completeness of the surface, there is not left any connection to a greater center. Sculpture as removal, the rocks deracinated formalistically. When one becomes aware, something changes.

"The white marble rose was my last ambitious piece."
My impulse has been toward less and less ambition, less pushing a form with a crushing arbitrariness. That's a really hard thing to move against—and to do it—in complete isolation. The rock is a strong faceted shape acquired over a billion years, or less than that, but nonetheless, weathered out of the matrix. One is constantly forced to question oneself. More and more my sculptures are reduced forms, slightly modified tubes and cylinders. Do I have good ideas? Better than the rock’s own for itself?


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