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Arthur Cislo: visual psalms
By Dan Swartz
Fort Wayne Reader
I spent a rainy Friday afternoon with Fort Wayne’s resident Renaissance man Art Cislo, chatting about everything from politics, education, Bob Dylan, the idea of “the city,” and one of the only topics that covers all of the above: Art. Arthur Cislo was born in Detroit, Michigan, and has been studying art since childhood. A job at International Harvester initially brought him to Fort Wayne in the 70s, and he retired from Navistar in 2002, allowing him to teach at the University of Saint Francis and devote more time to his art. Arts would be a better term to use, however, as Cislo effortlessly travels from one medium to another, then mixes them, through his monotypes, wood cut prints, dry and wet media drawings (graphite, conte, ink), and sculpture (in the form of bas-reliefs).
Among the many drawings upon the walls, on the floor, and in stacks in Cislo’s studio, I was able to discern the whole cast of characters with which Cislo uses to express his ideas on the opposing and sometimes conflicting facets of daily and intellectual life. They reminded me of the uses of contemporary masters Raymond Pettibon and Francesco Clemente. Many of these characters have been appropriated from the Gospels, which Cislo says were instilled in him during his high school days in a private Jesuit school back in Detroit. I found a series of ink wash drawings depicting St. Jerome particularly interesting, because of the nuances from scene to scene all including the solitary Jerome, sometimes with his face in a book, and with a lion near him. Cislo told me later the story of St. Jerome, and how he translated the Bible because of his expertise in Hebrew, Latin, and Greek, and how he is many times seen as a “curmudgeon scholar” that had a pet lion.
Cislo might be known best for his work which depicts religious themes, like his Stations of the Cross on the exterior of the Pope John Paul II building at the University of Saint Francis, or the commission he is currently working on for the Achduth Veshalom Temple of the story of Joseph and his brothers. Although he has great respect for religions and the traditions within them, he doesn’t wish to proselytize, and wants the viewer to understand the humanity behind the stories and plot within them. We then discussed the “transcendent curiosity,” in Cislo’s words, of artists such as Van Gogh, Rembrandt, and even modern artists like Mark Rothko.
My initial interest in Art Cislo’s work began a few years ago when he was my professor for an advanced drawing class at the University of Saint Francis. There, I began to understand Cislo’s work as a subtle and ambiguous mix of tradition based techniques and a contemporary voice. This can be seen in his mixed media monotype/wood cut print, titled “Messianic Drama.” This piece has a German expressionist quality to the black positive forms, with red monotype forms under the woodcut surface that form two central figures, all on top of the creamy negative space of the handmade paper. In the foreground of the image, there is a writhing scene of horror and anguish as tortured people look on to the previously mentioned red clad figures, one dealing a seemingly final blow to the other. This then builds up through a progression of other figures into a dramatically scaled hand and face, which laughs, while looking at the two figures poised on the fingers. One figure is upside down with its arms bracing its fall onto the middle finger, while the other stands on the pointer in a Christ-like pose.
At this point, the piece seems like it could have been done a century ago and was a protest to any number of social conditions at the time, or perhaps even older as a kind of religious allegory. This is where Cislo’s contemporary voice bursts through. In the background of this modestly sized work on paper is a monumental event — the 9/11 attacks. Time is instantly inverted inside the picture plane as you realize this isn’t a religious allegory, or a social critique of the last century, but both of these and more wrapped up in to a tidy package. Now the viewer is forced to rethink everything: Are the two red figures part of the war on terror? Is the dominant one an American soldier? Are the crying figures Iraqi citizens? As you look at the twin towers again, shown just before the second plane hits, you realize that the smoke from the first building is rising up the side of the image to the previously enigmatic upside down figure. Is it one of the buildings employees falling in a last ditch attempt of escape? This massive, exploding allegory takes place within a humble image, which Art Cislo keeps in his studio; one of many pieces that reside there.
Cislo explained that this piece and others are based on the Psalms. These ancient praising poems are a very big key to the total aesthetic beauty of Cislo’s work. He works in the postmodern sense of weaving many different conceptual and formal models together, but instead of disregarding the temporal lapses between them, Cislo gives great care and shows his respect through great discipline and discernment as to how they can come together effectively.
On the other hand, Cislo also showed me a great number of more casual ink wash drawings of trees, the river, and the environment around Foster Park. Though stripped of the monumental ideas that inhabit the work inspired by the psalms, these intimate, honest expressions of the everyday, such as “Trees in the Park,” are extremely powerful in their own right. They exhibit the confidence of a master draftsman, knowing his media so well that he can transcribe his vision effortlessly.