Some artists actually look like their work. The libidinal Picasso, the playful Chagall, the austere O’Keeffe, R. Crumb. Meeting Ned Kahn, one might not guess that this artist conjures tornadoes or simulates Neptune’s storms. For more than twenty years, though, the soft-spoken Kahn—a longtime Buddhist practitioner—has created sculptures and installations that evoke the most tempestuous forces of nature. Whirlwinds and landslides, volcanoes and black holes, all rage through his northern California studio, while the artist himself occupies the still center.
Kahn, a youthful forty-four, has a narrow face and dark eyes that often focus in the distance. His look of amusement, which is not quite perpetual (but close to it), is centered on his mouth. A recent recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship, Kahn recognized his life’s calling early on: His mother used to bring him to junkyards, where he collected the various objects that, at age ten, he assembled into his first “exhibition” of sculptures. From there his career progressed, as local interest in his work evolved into global fascination.
My own fascination with Kahn’s art began in the mid-1980s, when I saw his first Tornado at San Francisco’s Exploratorium. The twisting whirlwind of fog, eight feet tall, looked like a prop from The Wizard of Oz. I was filled with the childlike awe one experiences when something famously unapproachable is brought up close. It was like seeing sharks in an aquarium, or watching bands of lightning climb a Jacob’s Ladder. A few years later, during a residency at the Headlands Center for the Arts, in Marin County, California, the artist replaced the windows of an old Army barracks with hundreds of tiny hinged panels. As each passing breeze stirred the matrix, sunlight ebbed and flowed across the walls in rhythmic patterns: a self-portrait of the wind.
All of Kahn’s works provide insight into the ever-changing, interdependent world of natural phenomena. Some are deceptively simple: spinning glass globes that, filled with pearlescent liquids, mimic the turbulent atmospheres of the solar system’s gas giants; trellises of angled mirrors that reflect the tidewaters at the Point Reyes National Seashore. Others, inspired by the geologic forces that carve rivers and sculpt sand dunes, invite people to create their own miniature landscapes. And a very few are strictly passive—such as a unique observatory that encourages visitors to recline on comfortable lounge chairs, gaze through polarized portals, and view the passing clouds.
“I’ve always been attracted to the idea of making visible things that are invisible,” muses Kahn. “Somehow, that seems to be something of a Buddhist notion—although I suppose that all religions have some aspect of that: of the invisible being revealed.”
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