January 8th – February 7th, 2016
By Kim Power
Originally hailing from Sonoma County, California, Kurt Steger began his career as a skilled craftsman in furniture and cabinetry, inspired by the Arts and Crafts Movement of the 1800’s. Steger found himself drawn to creating sculptural forms when he became aware that his clients were responding to his pieces beyond their utility as functional objects. With the realization that his skills could be used to make a deeper connection, Steger began to make non-utilitarian objects under the mentorship of assemblage artist Raymond Barnhart.
Using elemental materials such as wood, paper, fiber, metal and stone, Steger’s works have ranged from the creation of symbolic primitive weapons in his Shamanic Weaponry series (created after the announcement of U.S. target strikes on the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) inside Syria in 2014) to ritualistic performance with his Meltdown (2015) mechanism with which participants were invited to “draw” a circle through repeated circumnavigations on a large swath of paper using a suspended toxic ice mass permeated with carbon, rust and soil, making reference to human responsibility and awareness of global environmental issues.
Conglomerate remnants of stone and mortar take on new life and meaning through Steger’s ongoing series Urban Structures, displayed in his current exhibit Reclaimed, at Bushwick gallery Art Helix. Daily scavenging of building sites has rewarded Steger with diamonds in the rough. Hewn from their original structure, these forms bear the marks of their existence: hollowed out spaces where a pipe once fit, discoloration from rusted metal, and watermarks. With a keen eye, Steger carefully chooses each piece that will become the literal building block which influences and inspires a new construction born of a need to connect with the upheaval of his adopted borough, Brooklyn.
That a building is only as strong as its foundation is a basic rule of construction, yet no building is immune to the events of time and human intervention. What was once built from earth, stone and wood gave rise to cement and iron, which in turn gave way to steel and concrete. The evolution of building materials is evolving as fast as the need for accommodation of a population expanding and living longer than any previous generations, as witnessed by the Census Bureau’s revelation that, according to New York real estate news magazine The Real Deal, “the population of New York City reached 8,491,079 in 2014, a problematic figure given that it is only about 60,000 short of previous estimates for the 2020 population.” (NYC population to surpass 2020 estimates this year, April 2, 2015). We cannot grow out and so we grow up. New York City, along with other urban centers around the world, is exploding with even more high rises to accommodate the masses, leaving in its wake the broken foundations of once familiar landmarks of local communities.
Steger has constructed architectonic wooden forms (painted in a matte patina of Portland cement and pigment or left to reveal their natural grain) that extrude from the irregular aggregate surface in congruent companionship. Rather than creating a schema for these structures, Steger relies on intuition and years of carpentry experience to inform where each new addition will be placed, satisfying an inner sense of balance and beauty. The result is that each unique sculpture exemplifies an aesthetic that is, in itself, a conglomerate of East meets West. One can easily imagine these pieces at home in a Japanese Zen garden, where similar principles of design are at work, such as Kanso (simplicity), Fukinsei (asymmetry), Shibui (understated beauty), and Shizen (natural appearance).
The oblong boxes with jutting protrusions and arched “roofs” give Urban Structure No. 5 (169 Central Avenue) and Urban Structure No. 17 (422 Evergreen Avenue) an appearance of futuristic observatories. Rectangular openings, short and long, fat and narrow, cut into these geometric forms allowing the viewer to gaze into either the darkness or look out through an opposing window into what Steger describes as “the cosmos”. No. 17 in particular sports four windows that have converging views, initiating this metaphysical thought, “What happens at the intersection where all four views are crossing,” a question Steger dreams of one day posing to physicist and futurist Michio Kaku (Professor of Theoretical Physics at the City College of New York).
As monuments to time and place, each structure is representative, not only of the Bushwick neighborhood, but of Steger’s experiences of the ephemeral in his travels. Two sculptures in particular, Urban Structure No. 5 and a its sister (not included in Reclaimed) Urban Structure No. 16 (710 Hart Street), are physical signifiers of Steger’s attempt to synthesize his Western heritage with his understanding of Eastern beliefs. The inspiration for No. 5 came about after viewing the ruins of pueblo architecture on a visit to the Grand Canyon in 2015. The sculpture displays an impression of its location in the rusted concavity that once supported a metal fencepost. Shortly following this trip, Steger and his wife, artist Meg Hitchcock, made a pilgrimage to Mt. Kailash in Tibet where they witnessed the remains of several Buddhist monasteries destroyed in the Chinese Cultural Revolution of 1959. Back in Bushwick, Steger returned to the same site where he had found the base for No. 5 and recovered the second half of the concrete section that had broken off of the pole to create No. 16.
In the PBS America biopic on Frank Lloyd Wright (whose minimalist and organic designs seem to have an affinity with Steger’s sculptural ideals), environmental historian William Cronon quotes Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Every spirit builds itself a house; and beyond its house, a world; and beyond its world a heaven. Know then, that the world exists for you: build, therefore, your own world.” Steger’s Urban Structures series embodies this statement as a creation of a maker whose clear and conscious decision is to respond to the gentrification of his immediate environment.