Julia Kunin Can Take the Heat

In the 1990s, before every sculptor announced that her practice
was driven by research, when formalist feminism was forging
through more narrative and less handmade times, and even before
Google, Julia Kunin was making intensely researched, crafted and
formal feminist work.

The primary materials of the works have certainly changed over
the years – from leather to glass to ceramics – Kunin’s voracious
appetite for the cultural, material and historical contexts of
her making persists. To talk to Kunin about the work is to open
a labyrinth of sources, from the biographic to the scientific. A
conversation that piques her curiosity about a historical material
practice leads to an international excursion, leads to learning the
local language (Italian? Georgian? Hungarian?), and then to a slew
of cultural influences that are perhaps completely incongruous with
the initial historical material practice (such as an interest in all the
international locations where locks are applied to architecture as
an expression of the promise of love). In all, Kunin fuels her “free
associations” with a wealth of specific art historical and technical
knowledge accumulated through years of study, critical thinking
and research methods. What’s more, Kunin’s capacity to learn
new languages with relative ease allows her to work with expert
craftsmen and women wherever they live.

Kunin’s most recent work has a clear affinity with the specific
craft traditions of the Austro-Hungarian regions, a second home.
Influenced strongly by the aesthetics of Middle Europe, at first
glance Kunin’s ceramics seem in tune with the syncopated, metallic
compositions of Gustav Klimt. However, all kinds of painterly effects
are called into play on these highly reflective, glazed surfaces.
Kunin’s moving planes, colorful fractals and playful sculptural
associations recall another Austrian artist, Hundertwasser. What
Hundertwasser compartmentalizes in the composition of his paintings, Kunin achieves as sculpted reliefs that animate light —
even on her most three-dimensional forms. Forthright imagery
seems to be “planted” in the raucous surface in order to make
tiny bundles of color that seem to “bounce” off the eye. Kunin
has spoken of her interest in the Hungarian-French artist Victor
Vasarely, grandfather of what we now call “Op Art.” Into this mix
of kinship, I’d add one more artist: Yaacov Agam, the Israeli artist
born in Palestine in 1928. Of special interest here are his works that
use lenticular wall constructions. What Agam provides through a
structural rendition of print technology, Kunin delivers exponentially
through ceramics. Every time you move in relation to Kunin’s work,
the optical reception of glaze upon form is different. The effect is
mesmerizing, seductive and radically decorative.
With a formal resemblance to sturdy panel supports covered with
mid- to low-reliefs, Kunin’s current wall-mounted ceramic pieces
can easily “cross over” to join the discourse around painting and
the decorative. An even greater critical connection to painting lies
in Kunin’s long investigation of sculpture via ceramics, since it’s
these two crafts — painting and ceramics — that present extremely
precise and unique relationships between support and surface.
These powerful, often chemical relationships form a special site for
Kunin. Holding onto her own conceptual construction — (painting
+ ceramics) x (surface + support) —is challenging enough. Add
to it the problematic of “the decorative” and you begin to see
how skillfully Kunin points to the feminist politics of form, craft and

Ever the sculptor, meaning is fused into Kunin’s work by means and
materials, as well as physical composition and a post-Fried sense
of audience participation.1 In this light it’s important to note that
the size of works is modest and the objects are scaled for close
looking. Movement is therefore confined to our heads, bobbing and shifting to catch the shimmering light of the fumed glassy
surfaces. We follow the artist’s linear and planar moves across the
wall, or in and around the tabletop works. With the appearance
of an occasional eye or orifice, Kunin’s current imagery is often
bodily, linking it back to her more overtly female work of the 1990s.
Although the pieces containing human imagery appear somewhat
Cubist, there is a powerful strain of Russian Constructivism that
runs throughout Kunin’s work. Some objects present a primacy of
physical space reminiscent of Tatlin and Gabo (Pevsner). We are
directed to geographic origins severed by pogrom. Allowing the
eye to follow what was built in real space with real materials and
real socio-political contexts seems at the core of Kunin’s project.
At the heart of her practice, Kunin reveals that the opulent is built
from dirt. Informed by fine art, science and geopolitics, the artist
utilizes the most precise chemistries to create a logic that is uniquely
her own — part organic, part crystalline and 100% fearless.

Sheila Pepe
Brooklyn, NY