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Roni Horn and the Art of Abstraction : She sometimes thinks of her installations as a species of performance art where the viewer becomes the actor

April 22, 1990|WILLIAM WILSON

No one paying close attention would ever confuse a sculptor with a singer, but Roni Horn immediately reminds one of k.d. lang. Glimpsed across the vast space of the Museum of Contemporary Art's Temporary Contemporary satellite in Little Tokyo, where an exhibition of Horn's recent sculpture opens today, the 35-year-old Horn looks androgynous.

With her close-cropped hair, tortoise specs and nondescript dungarees, she could maybe be a young Frank Stella. Likewise, in her videotapes, lang looks like a man. Both she and Horn are new-wave artists said to be breathing fresh life into conventional styles--lang into country music, Horn into Minimalist sculpture.

She is among the more interesting members of a still-fluxing generation of sculptors working internationally to infuse the muteness of pared-down Minimalism with aspects of Conceptual art. Horn's stock in the art world seems to be rising, especially since her last two New York shows were at the respected Paula Cooper and Leo Castelli galleries.

No one paying close attention is likely to confuse a man with a woman, but there seems to be some deliberate blurring of the gender line here. When the name Roni is spoken aloud, it sounds like Ronnie and when you hear k.d.'s initials they could belong to some good old boy even though they also sound like Katie.

Somehow the kernel of Horn's art keeps coming back to the kind of gender-bending she practices along with k.d. lang and others. What does the practice mean artistically? In the rock world, it goes back at least to the androgynous behavior of Mick Jagger in the '60s. It has something to do with the fact that, in the end, you do not mistake Jagger for a woman or Horn for a man. There is a kind of physical essence that comes across that lets one know what this person really is.

None of this would be worth mentioning if it didn't seem to bear somehow on Horn's work. She greets an interviewer politely a few days before her MOCA opening. Most work is already in place. Her manner is gentle but assertive, her dialogue a patois of literary, poetic philosophical references blended with artspeak. The net effect is, like the art, very abstract. She asks the interviewer to paraphrase her remarks when they cannot be quoted exactly. She is intensely concerned about precision. She declines to provide more than the barest biographical background, insisting her work is not autobiographical. She also insists it is not minimal, alchemical, romantic, idealistic or much of anything else, but she has trouble saying what it is . She does admit she is a "heavily assimilated Jew and that does somehow get into the work." It does. There is a quality of rabbinical disputation.

Her installation is large, but before entering it she points out the cavernous empty space leading to it. "I like the way that row of columns go on a diagonal and seem to lead to the work," she said.

As it turns out, Horn loves empty space. Since 1975, she's made regular pilgrimages to Iceland where she works in isolation. Most recently she lived there drawing alone in a lighthouse.

She loves spare isolated places like deserts. "They throw you back on your own resources. Ultimately, whatever you get from them comes from yourself."

Her first installation consists of a solid steel orb roughly the size of a bowling ball standing alone in a big white room. Its dulled-down surface gives it a disembodied quality, like a lead-colored balloon. The work is called "Asphere" because the orb is actually asymmetrical. She looks a little annoyed when the interviewer says it's sort of egg-shaped. Maybe she thinks that's not precise enough.

"I liked the person who said that it is something that looks familiar at first and grows more and more unfamiliar as you look at it." She thinks the work is about "discontent." Could it be about her own discontent? She left home at 16 and says she was "anxious to get away."

Horn's mind makes lurching creative connections. She says she sees the exhibition as a narrative, a "picaresque novel like Fielding's novel 'Tom Jones.' " Her mind makes razorblade-fine distinctions, as when she defines her work as "not site-specific but site-dependent."

The next installation is "Gold Field," a 4x5-foot sheet of solid gold rolled out thin like gold leaf and curled at one end. "My father was a pawnbroker so I grew up around gold, which was this dull, brassy material. I never saw it for what it was until I made this piece. Then I understood 'Jason and the Golden Fleece' and all the mythology attached to gold. When my father saw the piece, he didn't recognize the material."

She's very concerned about the viewer seeing things for what they are. She knows she makes heavy demands on her audience, but insists they can get the work if they just pay careful attention. But what if they feel sympathetic and don't get it? What clues or advice can she offer?

"Try harder."

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