In January 2023 the gallery Harper’s presented a solo exhibition by Kurt Lightner in its Chelsea 512 gallery space in New York. Titled “I Hauled”, the show features a 37-foot-long hand-carved tree. Lightner’s project, which started in 2006, consists of carving words that his maternal great-great-grandfather wrote in his daily journal about life as a farmer in a fallen tree that he harvested from the woods on his paternal grandparents’ farm in Ohio. It took Kurt Lightner 7,576 words, 31,700 letters, and 15 years to complete.
Kurt Lightner (b. 1971, Troy, OH) received a BFA from Columbus College of Art and Design in 1993, and an MFA from School of Visual Arts in 2004. Most recently, his work has been the subject of solo presentations at Mark Moore Fine Art, online (2022); and Contemporary Art Matters, Columbus (2019 and 2018). Lightner currently lives and works in Queens.
Kurt Lightner: I Hauled / Harper’s Chelsea 512. New York, January 14, 2023.
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Kurt Lightner about his work:
“The beginning of this project started over a century ago with a journal written in 1898. My maternal great-great-grandfather kept a daily journal for most of his life. My family still has 26 volumes of them, each containing a daily account of one year of his life, specifically about work on his farm in Indiana. Within the confines of the journal’s red leather binding, one year would be divided down into one page a day.
I come from a family of farmers. Up to my parent’s generation, both sides of my family had been farmers for centuries. Because of their vocation, an inextricable link between the physical terrains they inhabited and the work ethic that was cultivated created the families’ identity. This work ethic was passed down like genetic material through my family—generations after generations of farmers, laborers, and workers continually transmitted the drive to work.
After transcribing the journals, I became overwhelmed by the matter-of-fact description of daily routine. It was not a passionate retelling of his life but instead a reflection on his repetitive work on the farm. Each of his entries is paired down to no more than two sentences—some just three words. His clarity and utter diligence to track even the most mundane activity, such as a week’s worth of entries of “I plowed today,” shows his compulsion to leave some record of himself through his labor.
The evolution of this project started with the basic form of a tree. Specifically, a fallen tree that I harvested from the woods on my paternal grandparents’ farm in Ohio. I had been thinking about the graffiti found on trees—graffiti not in the destructive sense, but in the sheer act of leaving a permanent mark on this world. I began to realize the relationship between my great-great-grandfather’s journals and the act of incising one’s name into bark: both only disclose the most basic information of the brief moment the inscriber was connected to the material.
By carving the text in relief, I was able to bring the immediate idea of repetition and labor into the piece. 7,576 words and 31,700 letters later, this also allowed the text to completely transform the silhouette of the tree—much like how beetles gnaw their way around tree trunks, leaving their trail behind for us to follow.
The decision to have the carved tree rest on its side, much like how it looked when it was harvested from the woods, laying itself bare and exposed, allows the viewer to inspect and follow its contours while circumnavigating the hulking sculpture. Not all the text can be seen. Parts are hidden under steel supports or too low for visibility. Some sections are erased by capped holes to help hold the trunk and branches together. I liken these visual disruptions to moments in personal histories that get lost or forgotten as they are passed on from one generation to the next over the course of time.
When I started this project in 2006, my goal was to finish in a year. I was hoping for it to appear as if carvings happened over a much longer period of time. To my surprise, this project ended up taking 15 years to complete. As much as the words chronicle the life and work of my great-great-grandfather, time has allowed the piece to be infused with my own history as a maker, too. Over the years, I made lots of mistakes that forced me to figure things out on the fly. The tree, along with its carved text, exposes these scars and errors. My labor, struggles, successes, and failures are intimately intertwined on every surface and crevice. The process of making has become a reflection of the words carved into it.”
Kurt Lightner (b. 1971, Troy, OH) received a BFA from Columbus College of Art and Design in 1993, and an MFA from School of Visual Arts in 2004. Most recently, his work has been the subject of solo presentations at Mark Moore Fine Art, online (2022); Contemporary Art Matters, Columbus (2019 and 2018); Joseph Editions, Columbus (2016); Rebecca Ibel Gallery, New York (2011); Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, Kansas City (2006); and Clementine Gallery, New York (2006 and 2004). Lightner has been included in significant group exhibitions, including Driving Forces: Contemporary Art from the Collection of Ann and Ron Pizzuti, Columbus Museum of Art, Columbus (2019); LIC, NYC, Socrates Sculpture Park, Long Island City (2007); and Greater New York, MoMA PS1, Long Island City (2005). Reviews of his work have appeared in Artforum, Art in America, and New York Times, among other publications. Lightner currently lives and works in Queens.