This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: June 26, 2008 - Sue Eisler stands at a display of small sculptures and talks about transformation. The works are dried paint cakes removed from paint cans, small brushes sticking out of them at odd angles. "They were once used to make art," she says. "Now they are the art."
The untitled paint sculptures are characteristic of Eisler's approach to artmaking. She performs transformations that are neither radical nor complete; rather, they involve subtle shifts of an object's identity, or slight alterations of a material's original function. The resulting works are new, yet they remain rooted in the past life of their materials.
Eisler's 40-odd year long career of material transformations is the subject of this summer's Kranzberg Exhibition Series at Laumeier Sculpture Park. It's her largest show to date, her first retrospective, and a chance to appreciate an oeuvre that is at once rich and varied, but surprisingly cohesive.
Hanging such large retrospectives is an art in itself. In this undertaking, Laumeier curator Kim Humphries and Eisler wisely rejected a chronological organization in favor of groupings of works that are similar in size, in materials or in spirit. Thus, recent works nestle comfortably alongside pieces from the '60s and '70s, and revelations abound as we see Eisler return again and again to a particular process, form or material throughout the decades.
Asked what drives her work forward, if not chronological or thematic developments, Eisler is quick to answer: "Materials."
And Eisler clearly has some favorites, which she employs to great effect.
Nails are everywhere, often hammered into wood recalling African fetish objects, or in neat grid patterns, strung up with those cloth loops kids use to make potholders.
Staples, too -- used to attach paper to wood, or wire to plastic -- they become visual punctuation marks or drawings. Particularly in her large hanging pieces, Eisler extracts the two-dimensional capacity out of three-dimensional materials, then uses these newfound lines to describe new forms in space.
While wire, nails and staples are relatively anonymous, Eisler also revels in materials with more evident histories, happily letting them speak something of their past lives. One exhibition case features a series of books made in the late '80s, with pages of empty cigarette packs, crushed paper cups and aluminum cans. She focuses for a moment on a book made of dirty, partnerless gloves. "I think of each glove as a chapter. I think of how many cars ran over it. And where did it come from? What was it used for?" Nearby are several more recent pieces: home canning jars stuffed with plush animal toys, lint or crayons, evoking a host of nostalgic associations and giving new meaning to the idea of "preserves."
Eisler is a saver and a scavenger. Years ago, when she had a studio in the 1709 Building on Washington Avenue, she found herself in the thick of the dismantling of St. Louis' downtown commercial and manufacturing venues. The dumpsters were full, and the diving was lucrative. Then the 1709 Building was rehabbed, and Eisler lost her studio but found thousands of paper shoe templates left behind in the building.
She rescued as many as she could and has been making art with them ever since, extending their life expectancy indefinitely and creating a bit of St. Louis art-lore in the process. Several of the shoe template pieces are on view in this exhibition.
Also on view are three of Eisler's well-known perforation drawings from 1999 -- layers of paper with countless tiny punctures made by a perforating machine. Viewed against a solid background, the drawings look like lacy, multicolored sponges. Held up to the light, they explode into stellar constellations. These works, too, technically belong to an ongoing investigation: Eisler has piles of the tiny bits of paper cast off in the perforation process, and hasn't quite figured out what to do with them yet.
Process appears to drive Eisler's work every bit as much as materials, perhaps because the two are inseparable in her hands. She relates a story of being fascinated by Richard Serra's lead-throwing process in the late 1960s, and Lynda Benglis' poured latex sculptures from around the same time. In response, Eisler poured layers of paint on a toothpick and propped the tiny sculpture up on a wire.
There are echoes of other artists and art movements to be heard throughout Eisler's retrospective: Serra and Benglis, Process art, Arte Povera, Surrealism, Robert Rauschenberg. But those echoes are fleeting and faint. By contrast, Eisler's own voice speaks clearly in her works, without telling you exactly what to think of them. She leaves them untitled in the hopes that viewers will bring their own responses to her modest transformations.
Eisler turns to three of her wooden lobster buoy sculptures from 2006. "Each one I just altered slightly," she explains. She has cut into them, turning certain pieces, adding bits of paint or staples, but they remain largely true to their original forms. "I want people to look at them -- maybe they'll recognize them but they'll see a new shape and say, 'Oh, now I see it!'"
Ivy Cooper is an artist and professor of art history at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville.