Larry Buechel
Eye to Eye

The key symbol in F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby is a decrepit advertisement for the optometric services of Dr. T. J. Eckleberg. The faded billboard illustrates a pair of eyes, "blue and gigantic - their retinas are one yard high," framed by yellow spectacles. The eyes gaze across a "valley of ashes" (the Corona dump in Queens) that the novel's characters pass through several times in their travels between Long Island and New York City. After his philandering wife is killed in a car accident, the owner of a gas station adjacent to the "valley of ashes" speaks to his neighbor while staring out the garage's rear window.

" - and I said, 'God knows what you've been doing, everything you've been doing. You may fool me but you can't fool God!'" The neighbor, shocked to see that the widower is staring at the eyes of Dr. T. J. Eckleberg, attempts to offer reassurance. "That's an advertisement," he says.

The gamut of metaphoric possibilities Fitzgerald offers up in this single, loaded image is fully exploited by the sculptures that comprise Larry Buechel's exhibition Eye to Eye. From the profound concept of the "eye of God" to mascara marketers' effortless co-option of the parliamentary proclamation, "The ayes have it," Buechel's sculptures reflect the range of ocular iconography that permeates human history.

The ancient Egyptian utchat, symbol of the eye, was painted on coffins and sarcophagi to ward off evil, and the Egyptian custom of painting eyes on boat prows to guide sailors through storms remains widespread on the Mediterranean today. A picture of an open hand with an eye in the palm, found in both Oriental and Native American imagery, is seen as a symbol of mercy, signifying the marriage of awareness and acceptance. An early ideogram for air a circle with a dot in the center resembles the eye and so links the ever-presence of air with the ever presence of an all-seeing awareness.

God is described as omnipresent (all-present), omnipotent (all-powerful), and omniscient (all-knowing). Here the "knowing" is understood to mean "seeing," just as the caution to children that Santa "knows when you are sleeping/he knows when you're awake," is taken to mean that he sees into the children's homes.

This sampling of eye-related references suggests that human awareness has always accommodated the concept of surveillance, and, further, that most moral structures are grounded in the concept of surveillance. (In art this is reflected, however accidentally, in the "following-eye" or "Mona Lisa" effect, wherein the front-focused stare of the painted figure seems to pursue a viewer around the room.) Yet it is only recently that this watchful presence has transmuted from a metaphoric entity to a literal one: the electronic eye scanning bar codes, the video camera recording ATM transactions, the satellite monitoring weather patterns and weapons build-ups.

In the mid-1940s, Italian sculptor Lucio Fontana foresaw technology's potential to drastically alter human beings' innate, multisensory response to the environment and to one another. "Sensation was everything with the primitive man; sensation in the face of misunderstood nature, musical sensations, rhythmic sensations." Fontana also predicted that artists would neither keep pace with nor deter the onrush of commercial technological dynamism, although he held out hope that kinetic art might somehow help re-engender the "original condition of man."

Fontana was at least half-right: In a world increasingly dominated by computer-generated imagery, the usefulness of taste, touch, smell, and hearing has steadily ebbed while the significance of vision has expanded exponentially. New York-based ceramist Marek Cecula speaks fervently of the need to protect his own area of expertise, that of tactile experience, from extinction. "We can lose the sense of touch. It's getting numb through too much exposure to the purely visual."

Buechel came of age as an artist in the 1980s, when the concept of "sculpture" had been blown wide open and there were no longer any restrictions as to form, media, or content. His astuteness about when and where to incorporate commercial products and/or manufacturing techniques, along with his own faultless craftsmanship, allows the individual sculptures to present themselves as seamless, high-tech "totems" (rather than fussed-over objects), each work declaring via its media and organization the "state of the art" of a particular aspect of 21st-Century visualization.

Palace Guard is an industrial doormat (the ultimate symbol of that which is taken for granted), custom-woven with the image of a single, unblinking eye. Like the proto-bionic protectors of Buckingham Palace, the anonymous, machine-made mat implacably registers the comings and goings of gallery visitors.

At the opposite end of the technological spectrum, Eye Contact is a ten- by fifteen-foot computer-generated digitized painting of the artist's right eye, hugely enlarged from a 4x5 photo and precise enough to allow an iridologist to assess the artist's health.

Hello is a remote-controlled electronic transit mounted on a surveyor's tripod. The robot-like unit's "face" is covered by a transparent photo of the artist's eye. When the sculpture/robot is in its dormant phase, the transit tips down. When activated by the approach of a gallery visitor, the transit tips up and rotates in the visitor's direction. Buechel has opted to limit the machine's range of functions to the simplest and most essential component of good manners. "It sleeps, with its head down, until someone comes near. Then it wakes up and acknowledges the presence."

Encore is a series of identical elements, arranged in tiers to accommodate viewers' various heights. A light-gathering pin from an archer's bow-sight produces a luminous red-orange dot, like the focus point projected from the laser scope of a high-powered rifle, in front of the pupil of a glass eye (a genuine prosthesis from the 1940s). Each eyeball and light-point are magnified behind a convex tank-sight lens. The sculpture's title suggests a Kafkaesque drama in which the array of pseudo-optical instruments serves as an audience or jury, each member armed only with vision ("seeing is believing"), but to a degree of accuracy achievable only with electromechanics. The viewer, caught in the sculpture's crosshairs, is under serious scrutiny.

Buechel relates Observatory to the attempts of immigration officials to maintain constant vigilance along US borders. Four video monitors, each projecting the image of a blinking (and therefore alive and attentive) eye, spin on a motor-driven turntable, creating the illusion of a 360-degree band of unbroken surveillance.

With the mechanics of Kaleidoscope hidden from view, only the sculpture's final effect is available to viewers. The video-projected blinking-eye image is multiplied many times over by a series of Fresnel lenses (highly efficient concentric-ringed optics used in cameras and lighthouse beacons) and then further fragmented through a five-foot prism.

When Fontana predicted that kinetic art was a means to engage all the senses, he was referring to art in the modernist sense that is, art as a self-contained object, created to be viewed within an aesthetic context. The kinetic component, it was hoped, would help to "engage" the viewer. This aim was elaborated upon by French sculptor Julio Le Parc in a 1962 essay: "To cause the active participation of an art work is perhaps more important than passing contemplation and can develop the natural creative instincts within the public."

That was the modern then. This is the postmodern now. Buechel's sculptures speak to Western culture at large, not just to its art-world component, and they aim far beyond the science-fair goal of stimulating viewers' "natural creative instincts." Like the ad for Dr. T. J. Eckleberg, they function less as objects than as commentary, layered with hard information about a profound development in human evolution. And though laced with a touch of humor (also like Fitzgerald's billboard), these works project no judgment. It's up to us to decide what we think about all this seeing and being seen.

Roberta Lord
March 2000
New York, NY

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