arl Schwiesow’s current show at the Tahoe Gallery, Crosstalk, has the feel of something both funny and faintly dangerous. The bulk of the installation is made up of work and leisure objects—wrenches, baseball bats, skis, hard hats, bowling balls—that have been cut up and reassembled in novel ways. A ski, for instance, has been cut and folded in on itself—too precisely for it to resemble the aftermath of an accident, curled up like one of those reticent flowers that only opens its petals in response to sunlight. Two hard hats have been riddled with holes, swiss-cheesed into a state that would trigger a dead faint in an OSHA inspector. Some tennis rackets have been given a similar treatment, invoking a game both weirder and more complicated than the usual, where the point might be to miss the tennis ball, by skillfully letting it pass through one of the holes in the mesh. A repeated trope is to cut the implement several times on the diagonal, and then to reassemble it in a zigzag. Wrenches, baseball bats, and a crutch stagger across the wall, like strangely engineered lightning bolts—things that Zeus might hurl after the novelty of the ordinary ammunition wore off.

The show marks a return of sorts. Schwiesow, who is now based in central Washington, earned his bachelor’s degree at Sierra Nevada University (now the University of Nevada, Reno at Lake Tahoe), and his BFA show took place in the same space. I had the pleasure of having him as a student. He was one of those students who arrives with a fully formed vocabulary, and you wonder, as a teacher, how much you can actually teach them. Sometimes the best pedagogy is to just get out of their way. I talked to Karl about sculpture, organized sports, and the potency of the zigzag. Our conversation has been edited lightly for flow and clarity.



Why put implements of work and implements of play together in a space?

Where I started was value. I started trying to understand how and why we value things and what we find valuable. And I came up with different kinds of labor. I was curious to explore the ideas of value and labor through the manipulation—and basically destruction—of these utilitarian forms.

I think a lot of it can be autobiographical. Maybe it has to do with my history—my relationship with construction, and with things I don’t really like, but other people love—like bowling and tennis—and shifting the object itself helps to change my perception of the sport or the object, and its relationship with culture.


Can you unpack the autobiographical element?

Baseball was one thing that I struggled with as a youth, and I would play occasionally, but I was never really interested in team sports. They didn’t really work for me. It was one of those things that I never really fit into, or couldn’t really get the hang of.

I was in Little League, and that’s where I learned the term “spastic stomach.” Because every time I was on the field, my stomach started to hurt.

Oh, no, how bad was it for you? I kind of just said no. I’d just quit. Just walk off. No, not doing it.

Ski team was another one of those things. I did stick with that the longest, and skiing is something that I still do, but I do it on my own. When I was younger, ski team was one of those things that I was forced to do all the time. I would do it because I could be off the trail and go ski around. I cross country skied. And I was the kid who was wearing their slacks and a t-shirt and headband, and then not skiing on the trail and finding all the jumps and just, you know, goofing off mostly.

Once people got really serious in high school—you know, spandex uniforms and wax regimens and training and – God, there’s so many parts to it—I couldn’t deal with it anymore.


It sounds like it’s not necessarily the activities that were bothersome to you, but the social organization around them.

Yeah. I don’t conform, and conforming to a set of standards or having somebody judging you, or a competition of this person against that—I really steered away from competition.

There’s a sense of a deconstruction of the objects, but it can also highlight a certain elegance to them. With the cut or folded ski, it accentuates the curve at the front of the ski. Which is about negotiating a surface. If it wasn’t curved, it would pitch you over because it would be catching on things. Folding the ski makes you more aware of the physics of the object, how it responds to its environment.

I think, as an object, skis are pretty interesting things. They’re super simple, but they really have shaped and changed my life. I created a whole series of [ski pieces]. I [turned one into] a triangle, a square, and other shapes. Originally I made one that was round, and the idea was that the ski slides horizontally – so I performed this state change on it, and now it became an object that would roll instead of slide.

And through that manipulation, I discovered that there’s a little more there—that by changing the function of this thing, it also changed the language in a very specific way, and where that pointed for me was back to that dysfunction with ski team—with not wanting to conform to racing and anxiety and those things.


What do you have to say about the zigzag, the power of the zigzag?

I love using the zigzag. It’s part of working with these found objects and trying to shake out everything I can from it. I wanted to reduce forms to the simplest shapes or solids—to find a simple operation, and then execute it on a variety of objects and forms.

And the zigzag for me comes from a few different places. The ripples on water—like ripples on the ocean, or waves in the ocean. That’s not a zigzag per se, but they definitely have that sense of movement. I spent a lot of time on the ocean, bobbing up and down, and I think some of it is derived from that.

But the other more salient thing is that the zigzag could be interpreted as a deviation from the norm. It is literally a physical deviation from the norm—a straight line. And I think that is probably the most potent thing that it does. When it’s imposed on different forms, it does a different thing every time. I mean, it doesn’t do a different thing every time, it goes zig zag [laughs]. It might be getting a little played out.

But I like the deviation from that straight line, so you don’t go straight to the end. There’s a more curved path through the form, through the meaning—or through the relationship, right?

“Crosstalk” is on display at the Tahoe Gallery at UNR at Lake Tahoe in Incline Village through March 15. There will be a closing reception with an artist’s talk on Thursday, March 14, at 5 pm.

Follow @karlschwiesow on Instagram, and see more of his work on his website.

Photos courtesy of Karl Schwiesow.

This article was funded by a generous grant from the Nevada Arts Council and the National Endowment for the Arts.

Posted by Chris Lanier

Chris Lanier is an artist and critic who generally likes to mix things up – words and pictures, video and performance, design and art. He’s had work shown and published in the U.S., Mexico, England, Japan, France, Canada, and Serbia – and has written for The Believer, HiLobrow, Furtherfield, Rhizome, the San Francisco Chronicle, and the Comics Journal. He is a Professor of Digital Art at the University of Nevada, Reno at Lake Tahoe (formerly Sierra Nevada College). More at chrislanierart.wordpress.com.