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Art Cislo: Worth a Thousand Words

By Dan Swartz

Fort Wayne Reader


Without question, an artist is only as capable as the behaviors that he or she is able to shape, to create work. Some artists are more blatant in speaking about these rigors, like Marina Abramovic or Andrea Zittell, whose practices are specifically designed to take advantages of challenges of strength, endurance, and physicality. Through these behavioral structures underlying their creative practices, artists gain a series of constraints which drive their work forward, give further credence to some of the more illogical steps along the creative process, and give artists something to fall back on when the original birth pangs of inspiration have faded and work begins to feel more like work. A rather famous quote by Kiki Smith in the pinnacle contemporary art documentary series Art:21 is, “90% of it is just filing out your bad mistakes. I never have a moment in my life when I don’t know what to do...there is always some filing to do.”

Other artists, like Fort Wayne based Art Cislo, hold discipline in other forms, perhaps less physically rigorous than some, but still quite taxing in that it is an ever constant thought and action, one which may wait in line to the normal duties of one’s days, but also second in line, and jutting into the forefront when the moment is right. True artists like Cislo have libraries of sketchbooks and studies, and volumes of completed works which are near impossible to separate into bodies of work, and must be taken as a gestalt peak into the mind of the artist.

In “Art Cislo: Expressions of the Heart of Man,” all of this discipline, focus, and obsession is evident in the painstaking and evocative depictions of the Judeo-Christian epics of the Torah and New Testament. Not quite a retrospective, this exhibition makes Cislo’s dedication to the arts clear, and provides a glimpse into the tremendous mass of his oeuvre. As Fort Wayne Museum of Art texts provide, “An artist’s interpretation and expressions of the narratives of our time are shaped by worldview, family upbringing, cultural and societal norms, and personal imaginings of the stories we read and hear, among other inner and outer influences.”

Cislo’s most exhibited works tend to be his woodblock and monotype prints which exemplify his understanding and interest in the human figure and its ability to constantly act as the character in a story, and convey his interest in the complex expressions they can claim. Outside of the his woodblock and monotypes however, Cislo’s work effortlessly includes everything from drawings to bas-relief sculptural pieces. Through all of these media, Cislo’s style and content hold true.

In pieces like “Pilate,” a monotype cut close in with the picture plane giving us a vignette of the man who has garnered great disappointment and to some hatred throughout the ages. In Cislo’s version of this character and man, we see all of the telltale signs of danger, from “shifty” eyes cutting to the side, to being displayed in a duality of light and dark, but the light half, which in most duality scenarios evokes virtue, the most mistrusting aspects are brought forth, and shown clearly. Cislo’s Pilate is not struggling with conflicting emotions as much as displaying a stone cold objectivity to the world, and even containing perhaps a bit of indignation about needing to be involved at all.

Other pieces, such as “Jonah,” a woodcut print, Cislo depicts an atypical vision of the archetypal story of Jonah, a man whose faith is tested. In Cislo’s “Jonah,” we see a central figure emerging from the mouth of a fish, not the gigantic mouth of a whale or other massive sea creature suggested in speculations about the story, but that of a large fish in which Jonah is shown pushing his way out of, upon his emergence three days after being swallowed. Cislo gives his Jonah a quiet determinism in his face. Not one so proud as to triumph out of the fish, but a resigned resilience, knowing that there is more work to be done after days of reflection and communication with his God.

And yet another image, ”Christ asleep in the storm on the sea of Galilee”, this time also a woodcut, Cislo predominantly fills the picture plane with the boat and its inhabitants, with interesting compositional choices, such as positioning Jesus Christ, the star of the show, in the bottom left hand of the image, with the boat itself creating a strong diagonal, pulling the the viewers eyes back and forth along it. These images, which steer away from the classical monolithic depictions of Biblical characters offer us a modern appreciation for the stories, and draw the viewer into them more. Less didactic and more tempestuous and sentimental, Cislo’s depictions offer us a way in to these tried and true stories which allow a push past some of the biases built into modern society. The viewer sees the stories through human eyes, away from the arguments of science and theology, and connects with the individuals shown as they often times fumble through through lives in these great Biblical stories.

Art Cislo is one of the greatest Fort Wayne artists, and to see exhibitions dedicated to his work like this is much needed and appreciated. Without an appreciation of the skills and life’s work of artists like Cislo, Fort Wayne will never claim an identity within the greater art world. Hopefully a more complete retrospective of Cislo’s work will be produced in the coming years that paints the full range of his abilities, his thoughts, and his work.


“Art Cislo: Expressions of the Heart of Man”
Fort Wayne Museum of Art
Closes: July 10, 2016

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