“If you look where other people don’t, you’ll find what others are not seeing.”
These words from Dion Kliner encapsulate the intertwined ideas ingrained in The Mislooked, his current show at the Burrard Arts Foundation. The works pivot on the central duality of symmetry and asymmetry; that is, while visually Kliner finds himself drawn to forms that are imperfect, asymmetrical, and misshapen, he sees the act of focusing on these shapes and bodies as one of ultimate symmetry, or equality. The artist describes himself as “militantly interested in fairness and justice,” and to him, the act of elevating forms typically overlooked is about restoring symmetry to the inherently elitist human search for beauty.
Kliner’s unusual process and materials also reveal his interest in making use of what most people cast away. He modifies the classic art-school material, plaster, by repurposing old, hardened shards and powder discarded from previous work and blending it into wet plaster along with paper pulp and natural fibres, shaping the mixture over a frame of tree branches and wire. The combination causes the plaster to dry much more slowly than normal, allowing it be used in either an additive manner, building it up slowly like clay, or a subtractive one, similar to carving stone.
For all his interest in subverting sculptural and artistic conventions, Kliner is deeply aware of and connected to art history. “A sculptor is a sculptor always,” he says. “I can converse with a sculptor as far back in history as the person who created the Venus of Willendorf. It doesn’t matter that we don’t share a common verbal language. I can know what they were doing as a sculptor, and that’s the shared language – I make a piece of work in response to theirs, which is a conversation.”
Every aspect of Kliner’s pieces is exactingly considered, even the bases upon which his figures stand. The bases for figurative sculpture are another typically overlooked object that the artist finds to be rich with history and inspiration. Before turning his attention to body depictions, Kliner spent years focusing on these bases. He finds them interesting because historically, they were the only area in which sculptors of the time could stray towards abstraction.
Although many of the human forms in the show are incomplete – a leg, foot, or torso – the artist stresses that they are not broken or dismembered, but details of a whole, saying, “it’s not so much that the arm was cut off, but that I’m only looking at the foot.” Another commonly forgotten entity, the foot is the body part most scrutinized in Kliner’s figurative works. “A foot’s an astounding thing, it’s incredibly complex,” he says. “It has as much personality as a hand, but hands are overdone. A foot is very expressive, but a lot simpler than the face, and has a lot of interesting formal qualities.”
It’s interesting, then, that for all this, Kliner’s sculptures absolutely read, to me, as ‘beautiful’ rather than ‘ugly’. Beyond this reductive binary, there is an intense vulnerability to his works, an almost painful sensitivity experienced in looking on something so fully human, the imperfections and weaknesses that idealized representations often gloss over in plain view. They carry a sense of individuality that captures the viewer’s attention as they focus on the subject, musing over who they might be, what might have led them to this point. Kliner describes many of the works as being inspired by friends, people he’s encountered that left an impact on him. For example, ‘The Hunchback’ references a childhood classmate, a boy named Danny who suffered from physical disabilities that meant he didn’t survive into his teens. “Over the years I’ve thought of him a lot, more than anyone else I’ve known outside family,” Kliner says. His relationship with Danny may have marked the beginning of the artist’s concern for the socially marginalized and overlooked, and his interest in bringing justice to them through art.
While of course, most viewers will not be themselves people with disabilities, Kliner’s sculptures still inspire empathy and recognition, because humans are all closer to these figures than the heroic, perfected classical bodies to which he reacts. Other than history, Kliner names loss as the other largest concept to which his work responds. “My initial interest in loss was with the loss of the base as a legitimate element of progressive sculpture, and the recognition of my own former complicity in the largely unfounded and unexamined dogma that continues to surround their disuse. This was joined by the loss of belief in the figure and what it represents, and more generally, the loss or degradation of belief in ideas like quality, responsibility, commitment, originality, and authorship. To me these ideas are fundamental to sculpture, and their loss inevitably leads me to a melancholy that becomes part of the sculptures too. I finally came to see loss as the most common human experience.”
His subjects certainly appear to have experienced loss in some form, as, of course, has every viewer. This inherently human suffering seems to be at the core of what motivates Kliner’s artistic practice. During our interview, he referenced a quote from Flaubert for its relevance to his outlook and creative work:
“Because I always see the future, the antithesis of everything is always before my eyes. I have never seen a child without thinking that it would grow old, not a cradle without thinking of a grave.”
Dion Kliner’s exhibition of sculptures, The Mislooked, will be on display at BAF through June 24 alongside Richard Clements’ A Third Thing. Come see the works in person from Tuesday to Saturday, noon to five. Learn more about his work at http://www.dionkliner.com/.