Everybody needs at least one window.

Joe Scanlan, 1992

All of Isa Genzken’s work revolves around natural forces and human inspirations—around the possibility of attaining any form of perfection here on earth, given the world and all its matter, human emotions and intellect. This exhibition will combine sculptures from the last ten years with the artist’s more recent investigations into light, windows, and transparency. These works include self-portrait X-rays (1989), lacquer paintings of light raking across textured surfaces (1992) , and the artist’s first-ever film, shot on location in Chicago last summer and inspired by the city’s light, architecture, and windows.

Genzken’s film focuses on Chicago architecture, and particularly on how the presence of light in a dense urban setting has contributed to the development of Chicago-style bay windows, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Robie House, Mies van der Rohe’s Crown Hall, urban plazas, and the glass “curtain walls” of modernist skyscrapers. Genzken’s film investigates how our need for architecture accommodates our desire for light.

Genzken’s sculptural oeuvre thus far consists of two aesthetically contrasting but philosophically complimentary extremes: highly crafted and colorful wood objects reminiscent of kayaks or spaceships; and disturbingly blunt concrete sculptures reminiscent of crude housing or fallout shelters. Ultimately the wood sculptures embody the idealism that we’re humanly capable of, the concrete sculptures the reality with which we live.

The earlier, wood sculptures seem at once both powerful and fragile. Though their polished forms suggest the streamlined aesthetics of progress—speed, efficiency, cleanliness—these virtues are countered by the extreme tension and fragility of such ruthless and pure pursuits. Some of her sculptures are over thirty feet in length and yet are balanced on a point the size of a dime. In the presence of such rarified beauty and stillness one experiences a breathtaking, almost shattering tension. This tension is sensed in the silence that surrounds Genzken’s work as much as it is seen in the work itself. The sculptures exist on the same radical plane as high-tech weaponry or genetic engineering—meaning, in other words, the pursuit of aesthetic or ideological perfection is as potentially destructive as it is rewarding.

Genzken’s more recent concrete sculptures are much less refined, rooted in the material reality and consequences of natural forces, concrete, and gravity. These sculptures consist of sequentially poured and stacked slabs of concrete featuring rough openings, windows and interiors. At first they suggest the brutally inhuman and reductive sorts of architecture associated with the flawed ideologies of mass public housing or modernism.

What is most disturbing about this work, however, is how familiar its sheer hopelessness and fatalism seem to us; how much a part of late-twentieth-century life their fatigue, their attitude, is. The way in which concrete as a material resigns itself to the forces that shape it—namely, gravity and the form of the container it fills—says much about the graceless melancholy and resignation that these works evoke; not only in a material sense, but in the lack of human spirit or motivation that they symbolize.

Genzken’s works about light attempt to capture and materialize the effect, the feeling, of light: from the warm feeling of sunlight subtly raking one’s skin to an X-ray’s penetrating gaze. In the same manner that her sculptural works incorporate the contradictions of perfection and progress, her light works suggest both the beauty and insidiousness of light, its essential pervasiveness; how it illuminates all that it touches, and allows us to see.