THE INDEPENDENT VOICE OF THE VISUAL ARTS
by Neil Goodman
Thinking about Gary Justis in his early years, he was always a bit of a Tom Swift. Like the namesake character in his novels, Gary seemed equally matched with Tom as inventor, explorer, problem solver, scientist, and builder. Their imaginations sparked ours, propelling us forward into a world that was still unfolding and seemingly just beyond the horizon.
For most of us, childhood dreams fade, yet for Gary Justis, they simply matured and developed. For more than forty years, he has been at the forefront of the Chicago art world. His intelligence coupled with originality, he is an artist pushing and crossing boundaries, marching forward while nodding to the past. His work is light, shadow, sound, movement. It pulses, it glows, it rocks, and it torques. His constancy as an artist is growth and change, and like his machines, his work is “never still in the wind.”
From the first time he exhibited at the Museum of Science and Industry, shortly after receiving his MFA at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, he has been the single most important Chicago artist encompassing technology as his base. If in the early 1980s we saw him as a kind of boy wonder, in later years he is more like Jules Verne, confidently charting a distinct and reliable course with authority and clarity. He is and always has been uniquely his own artist, and in surveying more than four decades of work, one sees the depth and rigor of his sculpture as an extraordinary artistic achievement.
I have also known and admired Gary for most of his career. For a while, we had the same dealer, and we occasionally exhibited together albeit with differing aesthetics. In the course of a significant portion of our time together in Chicago, we lived in the same neighborhood, and our studios were in close proximity and our conversations frequent.
This is a dialogue that started many years ago, and the questions posed address the long view of Gary’s personal and professional experience.
Gary Justis, Head of Mithra, 1980, aluminum, motors, light, 41 x 13 x 13 inches. Photo courtesy of the artist.New Art Exxaminer: When you consider a sculpture, how do you arrive at the form, and are you after a certain emotional response?
Gary Justis: Most times when I am in production of a work, the nature of the materials determines how the form is built. I have an accumulated internal catalog of forms in my head, I suppose, and this determines my choices of shapes and an object’s functional identity. I’m finding that I cut out basic geometric shapes from sheet metal lately and combine them with motorized technical devices to effect movement, a sense of time, and lighting effects that shape space. When things are not right, it’s because the materials, duration, and nature of the mechanical motion are not in harmony. I suppose that is a visceral and/or emotional awareness of incongruences within the work.
NAE: What sparked your early interest in machine technology?
GJ: One early advantage in my investigation of tech-based art was the availability of materials in a city like Chicago. There are discarded materials everywhere, some cast-off mechanical devices that I obtained either through a surplus outlet or off the street. With reconstituted mechanical apparatuses applied to my own sense of design, the element of time became more like a material… something that could be manufactured, containing qualities similar to malleable, physical matter. There was also the engineering aesthetic of “adjustability” in making machines pliable and true to their intended function. I found I could make anything perform if there was a component of maximum adjustability designed into the work.
NEA: There was a time that you revisited more traditional materials in creating your work, as well as non-kinetic form. What caused this shift?
GJ: Curiosity and a need to express some latent skills. In the early ’90s, I was studying the work of Brancusi more seriously than I had in the past. I wanted to understand the seeming timelessness of his forms and his uncanny sense of scale and texture. The body of work that I made at the time was influenced by this study and built with an exhibition in mind for CompassRose Gallery in Chicago. I called the show “Quiet Works,” and it contained a collection of small metal and wood pieces that were more expressive of mass and volume than my previous work. The heavy metal pieces were machined and were vaguely anthropomorphic, resting on carved wooden plinths. One work was a kind of standing bird form that was a tongue-in-cheek response to Brancusi. This piece was called Da Boid. Katherine Hixson, whom I mentioned earlier, believed these works to be a critique of early modernism. I do not know if she was referring to Brancusi in particular, but I would venture his reference was not lost on her.
NEA: Machines break, they demand attention, and in your case, they are uniquely attached to the builder. Do you think that the physical requirements essential towards maintenance have been a deterrent in collecting your work?
GJ: Yes, is has been a deterrent for many years. Other kinetic artists face this, so many strive to design and build high-quality components into the work. Time-based work has an obvious dilemma; the artist will not always be around to restore works, and this demands certain protocols for ensuring a work’s longevity. On the other hand, the rigors of guarantees or maintenance schedules make a work of art like an automobile and less like an autonomous aesthetic experience. It’s a tough one, and beyond making things standard enough that any tech person could repair or maintain a work, I do not know what the solution is, other than making sure the works are under the care of museums and institutions who are committed to understanding every aspect of a time-based work of art
NEA: I have found your photographs related yet independent of your sculptural oeuvre. What propelled your interest in photography, and what caused this shift?
GJ: I was collaborating with LJ Douglas in the early 2000s, producing animated video works, when I discovered that a digital camera could read light projections in a very specific way when using light-emitting diode (LED) light sources. When projecting light on a white, reflective surface, the camera reads projected light as pure color and all else as black. This allowed me to play with reflective and refractive filters and other objects to construct a fictive, photographic space. At the time, I was occupied with making light-producing sculpture… I found the two directions of research complemented each other, while remaining distinct [from] one another.
NEA: How do you know when a sculpture works?
GJ: Most of it is intuition, and a bit of it is training in the classical forms of composition, balance, and weight. This applies to machines as well as more traditional works. Good engineering holds a kernel of beauty within its identity and function. Sometimes I get a glimpse of this kernel along certain lines of my studio practice. Designing and building a machine is a process of understanding elegance in the interaction of carefully crafted components. If beauty isn’t evident in this process, then I start over.
NEA: In our generation, we saw ourselves as builders and designers. Is this still an important part of your aesthetic?
GJ: Yes, largely because of the serendipitous nature of this work. In doing one’s own work in all its aspects, discovery is always an important component of fabrication. This pushes the work forward with ever newer, substantive problems and objectives. It’s exciting to discover something in the act of making that formerly resided outside of one’s intellect.
NEA: When you first started, your work had a considered economy of material in creating form. This limitation propelled a certain originality and specificity of form. Do you see a major shift as to how artists are working with technology and their use of material?
GJ: Yes, I have seen a major shift in the financial ambitions of producing technology-based work. Many works I’ve seen either in person or through print are heavily financed and superbly produced by industrial standards. Digital controllers and digitally rendered displays and Internet-dependent works are providing new explorations in informational and political sculptural research. The breadth and scope of time-based art is impressive and quite exciting.
NEA: With a long and varied artistic history, is there any particular sculpture or body of work that you can point to as your greatest accomplishment?
GJ: Over the past forty-two years, much of my work owes its inspiration to a work I built in 1979. The piece was a time-based piece called Pendulum, the State of Its Arc. This sculpture was a small work with a pendulum escapement that allowed a metal bar to swing in a continuing arc, much like an exaggerated pendulum of a grandfather clock. As the bar would swing, a laser was pointed at the piece, striking two spinning prisms that would redirect the light as an arc projected behind the sculpture on the wall.
I feel this work encapsulated the sets of concerns I was investigating at the time in my studio practice. It involved time both real and metaphorical. It critiqued the nature of the utilitarian machine, rendering it impractical in one sense, yet elevating it to the level of art. This piece was shown at the New Museum in New York shortly after it was made. Then in 1982 it was shown at the Museum of Science and Industry, my first museum solo exhibition. Much later in the late ’90s, it was shown at Tough Gallery in Chicago.
I’m especially proud of the solo exhibition at the Chicago Cultural Center, “Hyperfunctional Icons” in 1985. The show was curated chiefly by Deven Golden, with the direction of Greg Knight. Deven produced a catalogue with a solid essay by him, a collection of lovely photographs of work in the show, and a fine interview written by James Yood. Deven worked very hard on the exhibition, directing the construction of large wood plinths surfaced by a thick, black rubber material for the works to sit on. Thanks to the efforts of the folks at the Cultural Center, the exhibition looked superb. The show was housed in the same classical room setting where the work of Terrance Karpowicz had been years earlier.
NEA: Moving the conversation a bit more biographically, you lived in the Pilsen neighborhood of Chicago for many years. At the time, the area was bleak and largely desolate, yet surprisingly beautiful in its post-industrial sensibility. How did that topography impact your work?
GJ: The area of Pilsen was a great place to live and build work during the ’70s-’90s. The rent for my studio, an old creamery, was inexpensive and in close proximity to the Chicago Loop. I was fortunate to be close to Chinatown and certain areas where I frequented Mexican and Chinese restaurants. I found many cast-off materials in the industrial areas close to the studio and began to welcome some of the local folks, who would bring me things they found. Materials ranged from large amounts of plastic cut-offs to parts form copying machines and other scrapped mechanical objects.
There was a large railroad drawbridge that lay in between Pilsen and Chinatown [and] spanned the Chicago River. This bridge was a magnificent vertical lift bridge with huge stone counterweights on either end of it. The bridge would rise, lifting the entire horizontal span as barges silently glided under it. I spent a good deal of time on that bridge with my dog as we explored the undeveloped areas around it. We were on it several times as it rose to its full height of a hundred or so feet. This encounter was so exhilarating and enlightening to me that I made up my mind to strive towards the same visceral and spiritual experience through the production and presentation of my work
NEA: A career is both influenced by thought, place, and the artists we come of age with. When you started exhibiting, who were some of the Chicago-based artists that influenced your work?
GJ: The sculptors Dean Langworthy and Roger Machin were school chums, and we all certainly had influences on each other in more than just our sculpture activities. Both Roger and Dean had great fabrication skills, and I was constantly amazed by the work they did. You, Neil Goodman, were a huge influence because I admired your skill with wax-working and bronze casting. I saw your work as a direct link to Isamu Noguchi and to Brancusi, whom Noguchi worked with in Paris around 1926.
Wesley Kimler, L J Douglas, Phyllis Bramson, Paul Lamantia, William Conger and Ed Paschke were painters I admired and formed friendships with. Buzz Spector, Fred Holland, John Henry, Jerry Peart, Barry Tinsley, Tony Tasset, and Richard Rezac are sculptors I know and whose work I admire very much. George Blaha is doing very compelling work with images of fantastic digitally rendered sculpture, and Tony Fitzpatrick has made a huge impact on the Chicago scene with his incredible imagery.
NEA: As we embark on this journey of finding our own voice, we first listen to others. Who were those artists?
GJ: The artists who were historical that I was looking at and reading at the time were Duchamp (of course), Jean Tinguely (kinetic artist), Ed Kienholz, Man Ray, Rudy Autio and Dennis Oppenheim. Dennis had a profound effect on my work because I formed a friendship with him in the ’80s, having helped with a couple of his installations and exhibitions in Chicago. I learned a great deal from the value of a creative person’s emotional intellect, which totally directed his research and production. His brilliance and originality were quite inspirational, and I was encouraged to persist in my studio life.
NEA: You are married to the artist LJ Douglas. Do you collaborate and communicate with each other about your work?
GJ: We critique one another’s work all the time. It has taken years to get to the point where we can be objective and explain our opinions about each other’s work. Our conversations are usually brief and to the point, focused on what is visually in front of us. Collaboration is another thing where the work is evolving through a process that requires negotiation. We both love to collaborate when we are both able to communicate a strong vision and at the same time let go of a part of our control for the sake of the whole work. We’ve collaborated on animation projects examining various subjects—history, adolescence, war, etc.
NEA: I always enjoyed the strong mythological references in your early work. What literature influenced your thinking?
GJ: As a boy, I read about Greek and Roman mythology and learned habits, functions and antics of various gods and heroes. I was always fascinated by the similarities between these ancient characters and modern superheroes. Much later I was interested in novels like Robert Graves’s I Claudius and Memoirs of Hadrian by Marguerite Yourcenar. Both offered a practical sense of how the Romans incorporated their deities into their lives and into matters of state.
Probably the most influential book I have read is The Timeless Way of Building, by Christopher Alexander. It explores a theory of architecture that seeks to find a nameless quality of our perception of space. He sets out to define this nameless quality by examples of our human coexistence with material manipulated with the intent to interrupt thought and encourage contemplation. This moves human consciousness towards harmony with objects and structures in our environment. Architectural spaces are only charged and energized by the fluidity of human interaction.
NEA: You tend to remember your first dealer, as that is the point of departure from student to artist. Yours was Marianne Deson, as she was a hallmark for Chicago artists coming of age in the early 1980s. What was that relationship like?
GJ: Marianne was a supporter of my work early on. I remember joining her gallery in 1981 or ’82. Our relationship was good and grew in intensity with time. She was very skilled at finding outside exhibition opportunities for younger artists. The showing schedules were a challenge to keep up with, but those early exhibitions launched my career in a very positive way. Marianne knew many prominent collectors and curators who all regarded her with awe and respect. She was able to get my work included in “Modern Machines,” an exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art at Philip Morris. At the exhibition I met Carolee Schneemann, Robert Longo, the duo Andrew Ginzel and Kristin Jones, and others.
Marianne was an extremely interesting conversationalist with a broad range of knowledge and interests. She was charming, funny, and extremely persuasive. She introduced some of the most compelling Italian painters to Chicago. She introduced me to Dennis Oppenheim, whom I had assisted several times with his exhibitions at the gallery. Many of us who were starting out owe a great deal to her memory. She was a Chicago institution.
NEA: Reciprocally, you showed with Jim Rose, Bill Struve, and Paul Klein.
GJ: A great deal could be said of all three of these wonderful men. All three of them had a huge effect on the Chicago scene. Jim Rose was a former ad executive who had retired and wanted to pursue his love of art by starting a gallery on Huron, CompassRose Gallery. Jim was a very smart and savvy businessman with a charm that was infectious.
The painter and sculptor Deven Golden, who was hired as his director, introduced my work to Jim, and he brought me into the gallery. Deven and Jim made a fine team at a time when computers were just beginning to be utilized in commercial galleries. Deven was a former curator at the Chicago Cultural Center and brought his immense skills to CompassRose. I felt I had so much wonderful encouragement from both men, and we sold quite a number of works. Jim had a solid stable of artists. He introduced the work of Alice Neel and Fairfield Porter to the city. He also championed the work of Stephan Reynolds, Dave Richards, and Dan Devening. Jim passed away from cancer in the mid-nineties, and his gallery closed. The city had lost a wonderful friend.
Bill Struve, whom you, Neil, and I knew quite well had a lovely, modest space in the gallery district. He was charming and very funny in our interactions with him. Like Jim Rose, Bill had his own way of encouraging artists and accommodating them during good times and hard times. He sold our furniture work and had lovely exhibitions. He sold the work of Wesley Kimler, Robert Barnes, and James Butler. What I remember best are the lunches we used to share with Bill’s family (he employed his wife Debbie and son Keith) in the room where the painting stacks were kept. They had a harvest table, and we would all sit around sharing information, gossip, and stories. I miss their kindness and generosity. Bill passed away in late 2020.
Paul Klein had moved to an impressive industrial space (Klein Art Works) west of the gallery district in the mid-nineties. His space was one of the most interesting venues for showing sculpture. The floor was made of large, shiny, bluish steel plates. Large works looked great in the space. Paul was a challenging person in some ways, but his love of art, family, and his artists was deep. He sold my work and helped me during lean times, not asking any questions. Paul was a tough-love sort of guy, fiercely supportive. He had definite opinions about almost everything and was never afraid to express them. He hosted two major exhibitions of my work. My first exhibition was a two-part mini-retrospective show that took place simultaneously at Klein Art Works and Tough Gallery. This exhibition received national reviews. My second exhibition introduced my first upholstered works, which gained a great deal of attention with local and national reviews. Paul showed the work of Jun Kaneko, Josh Garber, and Dan Ramirez.
NEA: We have spent a lifetime doing mostly the same thing, yet neither we nor our work are the same. How has aging affected you and your work?
GJ: For myself, age just brought more challenges as far as my physical limitation go. I feel my work is better as I age, and I have a clearer objective to investigate the things I haven’t learned yet. Age has a mellowing effect, so I’m not [as] anxious as I once was. This translates to the studio production. There is no hurry, but there is still a determined persistence in the practice of making.
NEA: For artists in particular, they have the measured knowledge and experience of a life internally defined and the durability to have sustained that creative ambition. You are certainly an exemplary example of this, and as a closing statement, what thought would you like to impart generationally?
GJ: Believe in the fact that for most creative people, persistence and genius are interchangeable.
Neil Goodman is a sculptor formerly based in Chicago with an extensive exhibition history. Presently living in the central coast of California, he retired from Indiana University Northwest as Professor Emeritus of Fine Arts. He is currently represented by Carl Hammer Gallery as well as serving as a regional editor for the New Art Examiner.
Gary Justis, Pendulum, State of Its Arc, 1979, plastic, aluminum, motors, optics, white and laser light, dimensions variable, machine dimensions, 78 x 40 x 23 inches. Photo courtesy of the artist.
Gary Justis, Head on Horizon, 2001, wood, aluminum, motors, digital projection, dimensions variable. Photo courtesy of the artist. https://youtu.be/tMuPSKzit0Y
Left: Gary Justis, This Is the Thing, 2000, stabile work, fabric, wood, aluminum, 108 x 42 x 28 inches. Photo courtesy of the artist.
Right: Gary Justis, Untitled (mantis), 2009, fabric, wood, 114 x 53 x 28 inches. Photo courtesy of the artist.
Gary Justis, The Nader, 2007, stabile work, wood and hardware, 143 x 108 x 37 inches. Photo courtesy of the artist.
Gary Justis, Big Onion, 2021, LED light source, aluminum, colored Lucite, dimensions variable,
object dimensions: 52 x 26 x 26 inches. Photo courtesy of the artist.
Gary Justis, Large Heart Patter Flake, 2018, archival pigment print, 48 x 36 inches. Photo courtesy of the artist.
Gary Justis, Vasculum #2, 2020, archival pigment print, 48 x 36 inches. Photo courtesy of the artist.
Gary Justis, Da Boid, 1991, stabile work, exotic hardwood, aluminum, 53 x 22 x 20 inches. Photo courtesy of the artist.
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