Linda Stein BLADES – 1989

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DR. RONNY COHEN
Art Historian

Both as a creative concept and cultural statement, Blades, the exciting multi-media project by artist Linda Stein, is a metaphor which addresses one of the most compelling issues of these times. The issue is violence and vulnerability, the critical duality that has become such a key dynamic of contemporary American life.

Stein has devoted this unique project to examining the manifold truths and consequences which this issue holds, and the enormous impact it has on individuals and society alike. A direct reflection of her commitment is the comprehensive examination she offers.

The presentation has four parts: A sculpture exhibit from Stein’s ongoing series entitled Blades; a video especially made for this project; an environment she designed featuring handwritten statements of viewer responses to the blades sculptures; a panel of experts gathered by Linda Stein which will discuss the issue. The panelists are members of the government, law enforcement, psychology and arts communities.

Stein’s political involvement in this issue was aroused by the unprecedented wave of violence affecting New York City, and the ensuing public debate over what to do to regain control. A New Yorker intent on staying in the city, she found herself, like many citizens at the beginning of 1990, mulling over the subject of violence. At the same time, she was working on a new body of sculpture, and the artistic and political trains of thought coincided. The subject of violence struck a resonant chord in her imagination, becoming a catalyst for bringing to mind an array of personal associations in addition to past and present experiences, which she needed to express through words, as well as images.

Prior to the Blades series, Stein’s Ceremonial Scepters had focused her attentions on the metaphorical potentials of abstract forms. Made from bone, wood, metal and stone, the Scepters had an ancient look that prompted audiences to find symbolic values of myth and ritual. They were enhanced by Stein’s stories of the Scepters’ origins.

With the Blades as with the Scepters, Stein’s choice of materials was vital. The steel machete blades, the most terrifying form of knife, and wood branches probably the warmest and most comforting of natural materials, were contrasting opposites, a duality in themselves. Working intuitively, she let the shapes evolve by incorporating feelings and ideas evoked during the process for creating the sculptures. The subject of violence grew into the larger issue of the duality, of which violence is a part. The very structures of the sculptures came to represent, on a metaphorical level, the re-channeling of the forces implicit in the blade. Stein states that “I have taken this weapon, this potentially destructive blade, and converted it into a constructive form. I am visually controlling violence.”

Using power tools to shape and dull the blades and to join them to wood, she makes these objects “viewer friendly”. They no longer have the power to do physical violence. With their smooth curves and surfaces, their flowing rhythms, these sculptures have grace and elegance, qualities that are only enhanced by their suspended format. By hanging them at varying heights, Stein encourages the audience to relate to the sculptures not only optically, but in visceral terms as well.

Her interest in making possible an intimate and active relationship between viewer and sculpture is also advanced by the unusual gesture of inviting the audience to write down their responses on a sheet of paper with the following printed on it: “THESE BLADES MAKE ME FEEL…” The possibility for dialogue is further opened by the environment she designed for the handwritten statements. Presided over by a single suspended Blade, this space is like a hall of testimony, attesting to the highly suggestive character of the sculpture series.

In the video, through words as well as images having beginnings in the artist’s own sketchbook diaries, Stein creates sequences exploring, in fantastic and figurative terms, the fragility of life, which is so sorely threatened by the acts of violence.

With the panel discussion, the real world has been brought into the gallery. Stein’s background as an educator and her work with teenagers has helped to make her aware of the connection between our physical and emotional instincts. In the 1970’s, she founded HAVE ART: WILL TRAVEL, INC., a non-profit corporation which gave high school students an opportunity to exhibit, sell and teach art in their communities. Working with teenagers, a significant population of perpetrators of violence, Stein realized the importance of public dialogue. Given the issue in the spotlight, the more intriguing and innovative the dialogue, the greater the possibility for positive change. Blades can serve as a fresh starting point.