To the bunker: Photos of wartime edifices lead this month’s exhibits

These bunkers are doing a much better job of housing horses than they did stopping the Germans. (Henrik Dijk)

These bunkers are doing a much better job of housing horses than they did stopping the Germans. (Hendrik Dijk)

Down on Abeel Street during Dec. 6’s gallery openings, the theme was the container — either in the form of the concrete bunkers built by the Dutch in World War II, as captured by the lens of Hendrik Dijk, the abstract patterned surfaces of skyscrapers photographed by Rob Hoekstra, or the encrusted porcelain pottery of Robert Hessler, which was unexpectedly segmented and could be taken apart, like the plastic donuts toddlers thread onto a small plastic tower. Each artist’s work grapples with the unexpected — that a ceramic pot isn’t something precious you put in the cupboard but something you can dismantle and play with, that modern steel buildings fly when viewed from a certain perspective and that an ugly eyesore in the Dutch countryside, so ubiquitous and plain it has become invisible, is actually a compelling geometric form that functions as a kind of palimpsest of the passing decades and the human activity that surrounds it.

Dijk’s and Hoekstra’s photographs constitute the two-person show at Donskoj Gallery on Abeel this month, and the two Dutch artists both depict aspects of the built environment in the Netherlands. Dijk, a long-time resident of Kingston’s Rondout who now spends much of the year in his native Holland, has photographed nearly all of the 480 bunkers that remain of the 700 built by the Dutch as a defense against the Germans in World War II. (In a talk at the gallery, Dijk noted that many Dutch have disdained the 300-ton structures, which have walls three feet thick and a ceiling six feet thick, because they mistakenly believe they were built by the Germans; the simple, gabled design of the bunkers, however, which could shelter up to 12 soldiers, was modeled after a German World War I prototype.) “I’m photographing nothing,” Dijk said, referring both to the way the structures have been ignored by the populace as well as to their blank gray presence: the colorless geometric mass forms a kind of negative space in the environment.

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Dijk’s photographs capture the various ways the structures, which are nearly indestructible — most of the ones that were destroyed had to be blown up — have insinuated themselves into the surrounding environment. At the Donskoj Gallery, he has grouped them into themed series, including bunkers with graffiti, bunkers with animals (at least one functions as a kind of barn), eroding bunkers, bunkers in the built environment, and bunkers subsumed by vegetative growth. He is planning to photograph all 480 of the bunkers and publish his photographs and the stories he has collected connected with the structures in a book, which will include a map of all the locations

Hoekstra’s photographs of contemporary buildings take a different tack — unveiling the powerful rhythms of the surface structure through an unusual perspective and radical cropping, thereby transforming the soaring urban facades that often seem oppressive and mundane to passers-by into something beautiful and compelling. In Hoekstra’s square format, ribbons of steel swerve like the elliptical orbits of speeding planets, stacks of masonry and glass windows seem to collapse in a façade that describes an earthquake in stasis, triangular facets are like giant jewels poised against the sky, and grids of steel and glass form a dance of curvaceous forms, like the rippling reflections of moonlight. All of the buildings were photographed in the Netherlands (though Hoekstra, who resides in Antwerp, said he’s been inspired by the skyscrapers of Manhattan during this visit, terming the white sweeping lobby of the new Freedom Tower “stunning”). When photographing buildings, he searches for the underlying structure and the angle that will establish that context, he noted. In a nod to the Kingston show, Hoekstra also photographed the bunkers, including a close-up image of a colorful, pebbly cross section of concrete that likens aggregate into inter-galactic travel.

Hessler, Meyer at KMOCA

Next door at KMOCA, Robert Hessler is showing his classical porcelain pieces as well as his more experimental work, in which the pots function more as movable sculptures: most consist of white towerlike structures, consisting of stacked donut-like forms, terraced cylinders, or smooth interlocking parts constituting a single skinny cone, and blistering black pieces that resemble ancient vessels. The matte texture, which in the case of the black pieces appears almost charred or crumbling, as if they were excavated from the soil, emphasizes the elegant, simple shapes, as if the objects depicted in a Giorgio Morandi painting were brought to life. Hessler said he experiments with the mixes of the glazes in his Shirt Factory studio to create the extraordinary textures; in some cases, the outer surface has cracked to reveal a colored substratum beneath, an effect created by layering and fusing two differently fired and formulated glazes. “I wanted to show the process,” said Hessler. “I’m playing with the idea of form, which is elegant but also organic. There’s a tension between refinement and roughness, as if the pieces had a microbiological quality.” Chance also comes into play, in that the artist is never sure once a piece is fired exactly where it will crack and blister.

In one piece, pottery also functions more like painting: a series of balls — actually half spheres attached to the white wall — which diminish in size as they move skyward, creating the illusion of space, seem to emerge from a large blue bowl. Balls and bowls have the same rough blue finish, resembling earth viewed from space, further playing with the scale, as they were models of a planetary phenomenon and the bowl belonged to a primal myth about origins.

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