Rarely does an artist produce something so personal, while still being so open to outside interpretation. Jean Sausele-Knodt’s collection of dynamic assemblages, Recent Animations, at Fred Schnider Gallery of Art does just that. Countering the sleek modern interior of the space with amalgamations of hand-cut pieces of wood, concrete, steel, and embroidery, their disparate elements band together to push into the room with a frenzy that is paradoxically calm.
Curator David Carlson molds the flow of the exhibit so that, while each work can speak for itself, consideration of how they fit together is encouraged. Though one can immediately walk straight to the main gallery from the front door, it is more likely that viewers will walk down the vestibule, to the backroom, and work their way from the back to the front. This is the way the exhibition is numbered, so it appears that this was anticipated.
Waiting to meet the viewer in the deepest part of the exhibition space are several mixed media reliefs that read like an index of Jean Sausele-Knodt’s preferred aesthetic choices and philosophical meditations. Connection, movement, unity of disparate parts are all cataloged in these initial offerings. Of these works, Skowhegan Branches stands out. Composed of oddly cut masonite boards held together by narrow bits of birch ply, these homemade hollow core pieces dive around, in, and through each other. Where we might assume that these are machined by computer guided electronics or reengineered leftovers from some other industrial project, we would be missing the point of much of what Sausele-Knodt builds. These are not just random parts flung together, but a result of a conscious effort to study her environment, abstract it, and reproduce the silhouettes and spaces between objects. Skowhegan Branches recreates thumbnail sketches of the areas in and around the tree limbs at the artist’s residency in Maine. This is her vision of her feelings about that area, but an outsider can still understand it.
Reworking and honing her pieces into the appropriate shapes involves her whole person. She relates to every part of her designs in such a way that she sees them as “friends.” Sausele-Knodt says “I feel completely connected to the pieces as I make them and now, as I see them under the lights and on the gallery wall. I have built into my studio practice actions that mean something to me – – and are me.” Most of her forms are familiar no matter how abstract they get. She treats the viewer to a confidential perspective, but one from which anyone should be able access meaning.
On the opposite wall, there are several wall hangings displayed in a group of three called Moments with Cyrille No 1, No 2, and No. 3. Held up by thin concrete slabs that are molded to resemble pegboards, these works have the look and feel of a small child’s construction toy. Covered in eclectic wooden forms that interlace across each sculpture’s expanse, they tempt the viewer to reassemble them in multiple ways, if only in the imagination. Sausele-Knodt assures me that she has not created and interactive piece, but she says that it is probable that she is channeling the time she spent developing an inquiry-lab for children which built on the work of Howard Gardiner’s Multiple Intelligences, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow and David Perkins’ Thinking Dispositions. It was, in fact, her contemplation with theories like “flow” (a zoned state where a person is fully absorbed and loses track of time) that led her away from flat painting in order to recapture her younger focus. As a child, Sausele-Knodt spent long hours building three-dimensionally out in nature. She explains “What do you remember doing as a young child in concentrated, focused ways? Thinking back to age 4 or 5, I remembered building small habitat structures with sticks, making V sticks to support roof structures – – for hours.” Today, she is bringing the determination of that childhood exploration to the contemporary art world as an adult.
As we enter the main room, there are several smaller mixed media works called Gatherings. Made in a similar manner to the other wood and concrete works, we see the addition of a new element: embroidery. Works such as Recent Animations take full advantage of the thread’s natural matte finish which counters the gloss of the oil paint. Juxtaposing the quirky textiles with wood, concrete, and steel elements, this is a more difficult balancing act, but by carefully setting contrasting pieces against one another, she is able “to find possibilities and to build a new sense of being or wholeness with fragments.” While cathartically processing the fragmentation of the world is a consistent theme of all the work in this exhibition, it is particularly pronounced in the Gatherings series.
Striving for ways to pull things together could easily lead Sausele-Knodt to less challenging arrangements, but she doesn’t shy away from precarious layouts. It is only through these configurations that she can achieve implied movement. She says, “I want to maintain that animated feel within the finished work, and find that pitched planes and varied intervals of space help the finished assemblage to appear animated. As the eye scans across the assemblage, the planes and negative spaces unfold; they open and close. This is much like what we experience when we walk about in life – – we navigate unfolding spaces.”
If there is a signature work in this exhibition, Rose Rubato should be a candidate. Operating on the center wall and easily one of the largest and most colorful of the works in the show, there is little doubt about the affection that Sausele-Knodt feels for it from her description of its making. Painted in an arresting red, the paddle shapes of its design roll over one another like a “back sweeping” canoe stroke. This isn’t by chance because Sausele-Knodt decisively arranges each part with special attention to the negative and positive spaces that result. In fact, the real power of all these sculptures come from these types of counter positions. The choices are deliberate and are baked into her practice from the beginning sketches that engender her fragments to the conclusion of their placement. The spaces between her elements are as important as the elements themselves. This animation develops further when the viewer walks around the sculptures so that the shapes change with the angle of view.
These constructions present as careful a choreography of parts as one is likely to see: in a metaphorical way, they dance. The title Rose Rubato derives from a musical term, revealing influence that is not immediately evident, but nonetheless plays a significant part. Sausele-Knodt is a vocalist who specializes in jazz. She says, “‘Rubato’ means a loose and flexible engagement of a song’s tempo – – an opening up and playing around, yet still being true to the song. My assemblage Rose Rubato nods to that idea in visual terms with the many fragments playing around with visual possibilities – – sequences and transitions – – yet still coming together as one unified image or sense of being.” If her internal metronome only aided her with this one work, it would not be worth mentioning, but we find successful “sequence” and “transition” strategies throughout her entire practice, so her testimony is to be believed. Whether it is the staccato mark making from repeated pounding of graphite on wood or the accelerando action of a ribbon of plywood weaving its way through her constructions, the artist’s musical background is evident in the way she works out her compositions.
Sausele-Knodt takes bits of the world and tries to make sense of them. The best art does just that. Hers is a referential art. It finds a personal perspective and shares it with the rest of us in a manner that is open enough for most of us to gain something from it, while finding our own way to evaluate the artist’s findings.
Jean Sausele-Knodt Recent Animations is on view through December 26th at Fred Schnider Gallery of Art, Available hours: Thursday – Sunday, 12 – 7 pm, by appointment only. Schedule a private tour by calling: 301.852.8042 or email email@example.com.
 This, and all further quotations referenced here are taken from private communications with the artist via email.