Windows without buildings: reflections on the drawings of Perry Kulper, Pt. 2 — John Trefry

OUTSIDE IN

Leach and I leave the gallery. Dusk still hums. Texas spring dusks are Arctic. Instead of the sun racing as it gets closer and closer to the horizon, as with the ocean or the desert, it seems to slow asymptotically, sometimes almost move backwards. The air is brighter now than when I had first strolled onto campus. Light fills the air like a mold casting the detailed grain of the scabby crust about us. This kind of inescapable light draws up all of our surroundings as though captured beneath a rainless thunderstorm.

We sit talking on one side of a square banquette bench that is weathered to resemble the splintering compendium of abuse visited upon a railroad tie. Two Barred owls roost on either side of the courtyard calling out to each other, “who cooks for you?” I can’t help fixating on the sky in hopes of a silent specter flying through the courtyard. I recall reading about a coyote wandering into a Quizno’s in Chicago and nosing its way to a cooler full of drinks.

A young woman steals down the glazed arcade toward the gallery, still waxy with its moribund glow, turning off lights as she goes. Seeing her from the courtyard, to risk awakening my Homeric simile, is like staying past the graveside service to watch the backhoe bury the corpse. As if thrust by that closure far into the future beyond my experience, the darkened drawings behind glass are liberated in the complicated biases of my memory.

The oddity of placing the complex tool of an architectural drawing on the wall for casual consumption and reflection strikes me. Yet, it could be considered that this context provides PK’s work with a function. These are to surrogate the buildings that either haven’t or will never emerge from them. They do this by means of communicative conventions. But in their borrowing from the gallery or salon tradition they gather a similar power that works of art gain through their exhibition.

The recontextualization of work into a setting that demands new scrutiny gives it wholly separate life, similar to the retrospective relationship of the architect to the fog of their own practice.

A filmmaker PK greatly admires, Peter Greenaway, has sought to invite the observer into that history by using exhibitions as a supplement to his cinematic work. He laments that his “experiences of making cinema will always be more stimulating, more fascinating, and more exciting than your experience in watching it… I, too, am being curiously short-changed. I want the illusion of the moving cinematic image, but I also want the delights of the original ideas, formats, strategies and texts… I would wish to find ways of communicating to others… these fascinations… It is, very simply, the exhibition.” His exhibition in Geneva, ‘The Stairs,’ recontextualizes one aspect of cinema, the location, by providing the means for first-person apprehension of passing time upon framed bits of the city, from the top of one hundred sets of stairs, peering through a tiny window. In the new public context of the tool, as with most displayed art, although with different repercussions, its display halts the productivity of the work. It no longer exists as a vehicle or a function of time. It is complete; it has reached its destination. The display of technical drawings of unbuilt architectural projects cultivates the perception of putting a cork in their instrumentality. This perception of drawings as ends, being able to end, or culminating in a test of their ability to wail some final aria from the wall is clearly rooted in the traditions and structures of the design academy. If the architect truly wanted to communicate the intention of the drawing to be used beyond the fetishization of its technique or the style of its content, they would lay it flat on a table where it could be used, leaned on, or have measures taken from it. I’m not saying, however, that PK’s drawings end. I am clarifying the context that they find themselves in, and the peerage they align themselves with. In fact, I think it is because of this inclination that they are able to become dislodged from their instrumental capacity and tend toward something greater to me.

When the only remaining light in the sky seems to be thrown back over the horizon like the strangely peaceful hair of a drowned Shelley Winters in Night of the Hunter, incandescence blooms in the windows of the studios stacked in the north wall of the courtyard. I’ve had an affinity for the archetype of the glowing, curtained window at dusk since I worked a construction project on a farm in central Georgia in my early twenties. I felt their warmth and their ability to telegraph a completely identifiable spatial tone was strong enough to humor the guts, like a pull of brandy from the tiny barrel of a real St. Bernard, as if I lay dying in the snow beside a Swiss chalet. It is the obstruction of the sheer curtain that makes this illusory phenomenon possible. It both allows the light to escape and protects the reality of the situation. The process of uniformly distributing light across the fabric surface turns the window solid, an object that distinguishes itself from the night air and the building being consumed by shade. It is alone, and it speaks. The windows of the architecture studios weren’t doing quite that. They lacked the sheer curtains, and a worm’s-eye view of the ceilings could be seen through them. Still, they transmit a uniform glow from bouncing throughout the large white rooms that seemed to hit the glass and stop there, halted by the not-yet-complete darkness of the courtyard. I am clearly rendered as a distant observer of their introverted geometries, excluded, freed to turn my back on them.

 

WINDOWS WITHOUT BUILDINGS

Nothing strigils the mind’s tongue better than a long, bleak drive. Yet bits of images and sensations gather in my discursive thoughts driving the bleached plain from Austin to Fort Worth. They are a kitchen midden of recollections, associations, and misunderstandings hung beneath a single precipice, like an idealized mountain upon whose pinnacle a climber could find no purchase. Here was the notion that PK’S field drawings which hung on the wall behind glass in the gallery were not just what conventional wisdom allows me to corral into ‘architecture,’ but further, ‘a building.’ Though now, being eighteen hours and two-hundred miles north, the illusory tendency with which I regard the drawings themselves as buildings is no more characteristic of the installation than say, the federal building. All of these recollections pool into the same expanded field of what a building imprints onto my experiences. The installation was some constructed, real aspect of a building, or at the very least the illusion of that aspect. In my estimation, they were windows. Although it is erroneous to state that PK’s drawings were in themselves buildings, I consider their effect in that moment as being indistinguishable from a recollection that might have stemmed from the experience of a built environment. The drawings presented in a form distinct from their purpose exist in an expanded field between drawing and building that admits them into a realm from which they had formerly been prohibited. They construct a relationship between territories and are the most reduced synecdoche of what allows architecture to be distinct from its context. These windows just happened to exist without buildings.

The interstate extends inordinate distances below the horizon in a concrete trench. From the south, like most plains cities, Fort Worth rises up slowly, almost endlessly. I hardly know where I am, or where I had just been. My thoughts are filled with the coalescing rubbish of the drive. The fringes of visual relationships between tangential stirrings limp along, occasionally locking into one another, until the whole is given sufficient power to speak aloud as one, through some physical corruption shared between that mess and my body.

I drive straight to the Modern. A weekday hush aches the polished concrete in the lobby. The sun seems silent on the pool because it has burned so ceaselessly that I don’t know the noise it makes.

The building is mute because its voice and words have become so intertwined that I can’t tell if it is speaking, or dead and singing back in my memory.

I slip undisturbed into the first peninsular gallery. A patina’d Caesar stands facing a very large mirror on the concrete wall away from the pool of water which the gallery is oriented towards (Figure 6). He has reached out just above the level of his head to the mirror but isn’t touching it. His fingers curl, slightly limp. An empty expression has halted on his face. It is the face of a rising epiphany, not before and not amidst. The irreducible instant at which he, reproduced from a bronze in painted plaster, cast still with all the alloys of propaganda, egotism, insularity, puissance, the thrust of history inseparable from his eternal being, looks into the mirror in this place, this present, this silence, in my witness, and sees just a man,  fallible and doomed. It happens, though not solely, through the juxtaposition of figure and mirror. The latent epiphany also relies on me, its actuation requires my presence in the round, my empathy, and the fertility of my humanity.

If PK could have been an architect in another time period, he once shared it would have been the Baroque. The conceptions of limitless, unified space, expressive reconsiderations of geometry, and the heterogeneity of time all were familiars to him. Much later I stumbled across an account of a Baroque sculpture that struck me as possessing nearly identical inclinations toward the observer as PK and Pistoletto’s works. This crucifixion by Juan Martínez Montañés is posed in such a way that the wide open eyes of Jesus are visible only from one knelt in prayer directly below. The station point is not an idealized geometric imperative but in fact a highly personal, even emotionally vulnerable perspective. The acknowledgment of the coexistence of subject and observer manifested as another Baroque tenet rekindled the rapturous immersion I felt being at directly addressed by PK’s work at UT. Photographs of Pistoletto’s work come across far more lifeless. In this case the piece of work only functions with the perceptual corruption of the procession. This solidification of effect can only be the pinnacle of the discursive heap, not a stone within it. Here I become more acutely aware of the context of PK’s drawings in my life. Though very different from their instrumental function, and context in other peoples’ lives, their specific ambiguity allows them to adopt, be transformed by, and to transform contexts, much like buildings. The form of this argument, woven only around this situation, is fragile. The resonance of the moment silently transmigrates into me without trace, like faith, and accompanies me as I wander over to the Kimbell for another crack at its secrets. Receding back into isolation, the Caesar is left with its intrinsic values, for obviously it can’t gaze upon itself. It needs me to see its face in the mirror.

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(Figure 6) The Etruscan, Michelangelo Pistoletto, The Museum of Modern Art, Fort Worth, Texas.

My old loafers are in tatters and I walk lightly and slowly to keep them from slipping off. It makes me feel like I have just emerged from syncope, slightly aloft. This flowing drape of the Pistoletto, the highway, the meetings and federal buildings, and a host of others in tow is the silent transubstantiation in which I bring PK’s pieces forward to the lawn of the Kimbell. My partner and I have discussed a shared handicap of ours. Without fail, when meeting a new person we become so focused on erecting the façade of social norms, by being in the moment, that the entire content of the exchange disappears like Cinderella’s carriage when the situation passes. We ask “Do you remember that person’s name?” This kind of binary plagues me. When one thing is on another must be off. The intellectual commitment to experience is a deferral of the actual. Standing silently before PK’s work in Austin, sharing passing moments and an electric conversation with a suite of dead objects, filled me with all of their qualities and left them with none of mine. It feels like release to float through the world. A building or a piece of a building is simply a building, no matter if it is alone. Yet because of their flat depth, their contrariness, PK’s unclassifiable drawings became windows when I was with them, and only for me. I had the power to actuate and rededicate them with my perception and memories.

Any of the four or five times I have raced over to the Kimbell after pencils-down at Fort Worth meetings I only had time to take the stairs from the basement entrance, up into the main vault, and straight out the door to the bosk of trees. This time it is completely closed. On an earlier trip, three of us reveled at how immaculately conceived the building seemed. But what I silently loved were the throwaways that made it imperfect: the cracks in the travertine stuffed with gum wrappers, the little service door under the south terrace stair through which windows to the basement offices are visible. I loved the trench-drain in the staff parking lot forced to take the module of the double-loaded parking aisle rather than the famous building module. I felt like I needed to love these things in secret, a different kind of deferral than the silent oblivion of raw experience, but a delay nonetheless.

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(Figure 7) The Kimbell Museum of Art, Fort Worth, Texas.

It comes upon me, sitting by the sheet of water behind the museum in another protracted spring dusk, this moment when all of the translucent figures of the past few days align. The space beneath the bosk is bright, the sky is blank. A group of girls are playing Ultimate Frisbee on the lawn separating the Kimbell from the Amon Carter’s lawn. I finger the pits in travertine. The burbling water flips sunlight like clouds of frayed ponytails for a moment into the shape of a landform in my memory (Figure 7). No longer a discursive house of cards, having been born of flesh by the Pistoletto in the The Modern, this vision finally situates PK’s works. The notion that I see before my eyes, ensorcelled by the noise of the water jets, is predicated on the laughably easy assertion that the Kimbell is a great building. Few people would disagree. However, being so often barred from its interior by forces of schedule, what I knew to be great about it was everything that it wasn’t, or more explicitly, everywhere that it wasn’t. By this I mean that it was all of the things that clung to it like cowbirds or trail dust, that orbited around it at some distance, like me, the grackles romping in the pool, the Frisbee girls, and all of the intangible aspects that I would call the building’s own memories, such as writings, anecdotes, and mythology. This delineated absence of the building emerges, at first unorganized, from what seem to be undesignable potentials. If shaped and arrayed, these can be seen to slowly coalesce into something like a waste mold that the Kimbell and its universe could be cast from. Our minds and memories as a civilization, your heartbreaks, night terrors, the films, stories, sketches of the traveler, postcards written home badged with tentative photographs, and the conscious or unconscious riffs and eschewals of the Modern and the Amon Carter, are all packed here about me like an ephemeral mold. Shaping its contours also are PK’s drawings, themselves molds for fantastically complex and inclusive worlds. I see Perry drawing. Though they are only drawings, I see into the windows they cast. It is there I see Perry, making buildings.


John Trefry  is an architect and the author of the novel PLATS, the caprice THY DECAY THOU SEEST BY THY DESIRE, and the forthcoming novel APPARITIONS OF THE LIVING, his work has appeared on The Fanzine, Black Sun Lit, and forthcoming on Plinth. He contributes to Entropy Magazine, Full Stop, minor literature[s], and forthcoming on The Quarterly Conversation. He lives in Lawrence, Kansas, and on Twitter @trefryesque.

Banner image: David’s Island, Perry Kulper

All other images: John Trefry