But when graphite finds its way into the hands of Santa Fe-based artist Susan York, it becomes mysterious.
York’s 3 Columns is simply that. Two small works rest in the gallery’s corners while a third—made of stacked smaller pieces—falls from the ceiling like a shiny black rectangular icicle. There is actually a fourth, unacknowledged, column in the site-sensitive exhibition that plays with the color and form of the graphite works. It is the column of light that flows into the gallery space from the recessed skylight next to which the largest piece hangs.
The surface of the columns, lit by ever-changing sunlight instead of harsh gallery lights, has a delicate luster to it. The color is not quite black, though it appears, from a distance, to be a black reminiscent of a bottle of ink, and it begs to be touched. The sides of the columns appear too precise, too smooth, as if they weren’t made at all, but pulled from the earth in their flawless, linear shape. On such a large scale the material becomes unfamiliar and, though it is obviously hard and solid, looks as if it would be easily scratched.
Each piece ends a few inches above the ground to create a sculptural perspective that is slightly off-kilter. The air below the pieces makes the columns appear to float and swing slightly with every breath taken in their presence—even though the largest piece weighs nearly 1,000 pounds.
While the form is simple, the way in which 3 Columns interacts with its space is not. The small room feels simultaneously spacious and cramped because of the placement. The two small pieces in the corners draw the viewer into the room, but the daunting piece that hangs to one side stands guard, keeping the flow of the room under its control.
Then there is the sound. Somehow, when the viewer stands within the triangle of columns, sound reacts differently than on the other side of the columns. The electrical conductivity of the mineral seems to ignite, forcing sound to reverberate through the triangle back to the ears of the speaker. Whispers travel on a horizontal plane, while in the corners that hold no graphite—the ones that seem to repel the audience—voices travel freely from top to bottom and side to side.
The meditation on form could be easily dismissed as minimalist sculpture, but the floating world that York has created isn’t reactionary. These forms simply exist, working with one another rather than against the outside world. In fact, the world outside ceases to exist as the meditation takes over. Despite the physical manifestation of the columns, they are simply the breath; their form serves as a koan to bring their viewers closer to true form.
In an adjacent room, and within the entry hall, are works on paper by York that show off a more familiar use of graphite. The geometric drawings, columns in their own right, could easily be architectural plans for the final installation and they add to an understanding of the empty space required to make 3 Columns effective.
The stark beauty of York’s work is reminiscent of the dark and shadow-filled aesthetics of Japanese monasteries and pre-war homes. Jun’ichiro Tanizaki’s In Praise of Shadows, in which the novelist and critic laments the polish and sheen of the West in comparison to the joyous dirt and worn aesthetic of the East, comes to mind. York’s choice of graphite, a mineral that covers those who handle it with black grit, reinforces the notion that an object, whether it be art or a teacup, is more beautiful when it has been handled. A close look at the columns shows the hand strokes of the artist as she shaped the blocks as variations in sheen.
While 3 Columns would be dazzling if it were made from its antonymous form, the graphite’s opposition is thoroughly overwhelming in its subtlety. Where there would be allusions to love and passion there is delicate control; conflict is replaced with inner peace; eternity becomes an enduring nothingness.
For her meditation, York has chosen the middle way; she does not cast off the world, nor does she embrace it. Instead she uses the ordinary in an unusual way and embraces the empty space of a room by enclosing it within the process of contemplation.