Lenny Kislin, a Woodstock/Bearsville-based assemblage artist, has been a guitar player in a band, a law student, a flea-market stall-holder, and an antiques dealer. In other words, he is a typical Woodstock guy.
From his years in the antiques business, Kislin has assembled a studio full of objects – the detritus of the decorative, applied and commercial arts, of sports, industry, and construction; items that were once elements in an advertisement, letters from a shop sign, wooden balls and bats from games, brass faucets and old keys. Orphaned from their contexts, most have lost their original meanings and purposes.
The usual words for these are “Found Objects” but, to Kislin, these are rescued objects. Sooner or later, one of these rescues will be chosen, or announce itself, to be worked into an assemblage and given a new context and a new meaning. It will be set in a frame, or applied to an old wooden shutter or cupboard door and become part of a visual pun or rebus, or perhaps a message. Some of these works are unabashedly light-hearted; others are more edgy with a social or political message; all are surreal. From November 13 through December, Kislin’s new work will be on view at the Oriole 9 restaurant in Woodstock; opening reception will be December 5, from 5 – 7pm.
Claire Lambe: Lenny, you took a circuitous route to becoming an artist, can you tell me a little about that?
Lenny Kislin: Actually, Claire, the circuitous route took me. Let’s start with law school where I learned what I didn’t want to be: a lawyer living in the NYC area. My wife, Nancy, and I bought our property in Woodstock during my senior year as we intended, after graduation, to build our own house and start on the road to an alternative life style. We didn’t tell my parents as they would have tried anything to get us to change our minds.
CL: Did you ever consider going to art school?
LK: No, going to art school was just too foreign a concept to even occur to me. I was “destined,” according to my father, to be either a lawyer or a doctor. Neither of which was anywhere near my aspirations.
CL: What do you think your parents would have said if you had said you wanted to study art instead of law?
LK: GET THE HELL OUT OF THIS HOUSE! WE WILL NO LONGER PAY FOR YOUR FOOD!
CL: Ha ha! And how long did it take them to accept your decision that you were not going to continue in law, but opt for a hippy lifestyle in Woodstock instead?
LK: Nancy’s parents were fine with the concept of the change – they both recognized how miserable we were about remaining in NYC. My parents, on the other hand, were extremely upset and freely expressed their belief that I was throwing my life away.
CL: Not having come to art via the conventional route of art school, do you feel this was an advantage or a disadvantage?
LK: I may have enjoyed the experience, but I might have gone down an entirely different path had I not been left to my own devices. And I’ve always felt that a necessary spark must truly exist, or come to exist, in any true artist whether or not that artist receives an early conditioning in art school. I wound up developing different skills that may be less unavailable in art school.
CL: What was the thing – the work or training – that was most useful to your artmaking?
LK: Building my house gave me the basics of joining objects together; contemplating content and design became a methodology I worked into my assemblages — associating different pieces into a satisfactory whole.
CL: Can you talk briefly about the process of creating one of your pieces?
LK: I spent most of my adult life seeking out objects to sell [in the antiques business] or to use to make assemblage art. Sometimes an epiphany occurs which throws me into the trance of creation. I construct a piece of art using some of those found objects and, after a while, I either jump up and down with joy, or I take the damn thing apart. I like the jumping better!
CL: Did you know when you first started tinkering with these objects and putting them into new contexts, that you were laying the foundation for a second career?
LK: I didn’t know it would be a career. I was compelled to make the art and wasn’t even thinking about selling it.
CL: Yet within three years of making your first pieces, you were juried into a show in Manhattan and selling your work. That must have flummoxed your dad.
LK: Yes. As an aside, after seeing how happy Nancy and I were once the big change had taken hold and how beautiful our Woodstock Shangri-La truly was, my parents retired and moved to Woodstock and lived happily ever after in a house in Bearsville, four doors down from mine. Nancy’s parents followed two years later.
CL: Lenny, what makes a good day in the studio?
LK: Starting out designing a piece, gathering objects that will help make it complete (which involves hunting through my already hunted-for objects and associating them with each other, using them to their best advantage), completing the piece and titling it.
CL: Of the pieces in this new show at Oriole 9, is there one that is a particular favorite and, if so, why?
LK: Yes. My favorite piece in the show is SHE. It is also one of my most straightforward pieces. No fluff or embellishment, it virtually screams out “I Am Woman!” It says I am strong and have endured through much in life; I am figuratively crucified, but proud! The antique gilded lettering is rare and artistic. Once in a while I use very few pieces to make a powerful statement. This is one of those times.
CL: What artists inspire you?
LK: Marcel Duchamp, Joseph Cornell, Louise Nevelson, and all the obvious greats throughout art history (including cavemen) — outsider artists, folk artists, et al.
CL: Do you collect art yourself? If so, is the work you are attracted to similar or very different to the work you make?
LK: Mostly dissimilar to the art I make (not many of these people around). But I collect a lot of really unusual art and objects that are rare and thought-provoking.
CL: What do you like the most about being an artist?
LK: Making the imagined into actuality and being pleased with what I’ve brought into the real world.
CL: And the least?
LK: How bad my back is now after straining physically to produce all these loved (by me, anyway) creations.
CL: If you were not an artist, what would you be?
LK: Probably an unhappy lawyer (gotta pay the bills).
CL: I doubt that somehow. Any words of advice for aspiring and emerging artists?
LK: Do your art because you are inwardly compelled to. It’s extremely difficult to actually make a living at this. I doubt that I would have been able to produce as much art as I have if I didn’t have a second source of income. There are far more artists in existence today than there were years ago.
CL: So many young people opt for art school today compared to years ago.
LK: Competition can be a sore spot in the throat to success, but do what you can do and keep plugging away.
CL: Maybe we need more parents to be like yours were, threatening to cut their kids off if they don’t do something sensible, haha. Admittedly, you’re proof that that isn’t a sure thing for cutting down the competition. Thanks for talking to me, Lenny, and best of luck with the show.
The poet Charles Simic once said of an earlier assemblage artist, Joseph Cornell, “Somewhere in the city of New York there are four or five still-unknown objects that belong together. Once together they’ll make a work of art.” Substituting State of New York for City of New York, this could be said of Lenny Kislin too.
Featured Image: “A Sign of Attention”, brass on wood – detail.
All images are courtesy of the artist.
Lenny Kislin solo show at Oriole 9, 17 Tinker St, Woodstock, is on view through December 2015. There will be an artist’s reception on Saturday, December 5th, from 5 – 7pm. Lenny Kislin’s work can also be seen at New World Home Cooking restaurant on the Saugerties Rd (Route 212).
For more information about Lenny Kislin, visit his website:
For information about Oriole 9 Restaurant, visit: