The first impression Steve Juras’ studio calls to mind is of self-constraint as aesthetic. His work spans any number of two and three dimensional, formal and conceptual practices, and it’s the consistently tightening systems he builds and acts under that provide a through-line: repetitions and experiments in tightly restricted games that insist on looping back on themselves. Juras’ background is in design– his MFA from SAIC is in visual communication– and it’s easy to read some of that background into his somewhat detached approach, which often translates into the obsessive working of images into their most basic shapes (like a long series of skull drawings in notebooks, where a naturalistic sketch ultimately devolves into a study of curve and line) and explorations of shapes within grids. “I’m always looking back to abstraction, the investigation of the line,” he muses as he flips through carefully labeled notebooks that offer endless repetitions on simple themes.


These “systems at work with random events,” as Juras calls them, are intended to result in “a suspension of decision-making” while simultaneously “introducing more texture and materiality, disrupting uniformity, looping back to grids vs. organic forms that grow from them.” Similar restrictions in his Achroma series of paintings, drawing, and sculpture had him quietly removing color from the series (and eventually removing almost all black hues), constantly “overloading and scraping back.” The grids and the constant self-censorship offer some sense of control and a restriction that oddly seem to allow for his most heady explorations, particularly his current investigations into “the void, presence, and absence”: the New Sacred as a concept in contemporary art practices.

Juras’ carefully notes that he’s not interested in sacredness in terms of religious or holy territory, but as a structure that we are rarely aware of until it is presented to us in a new register. His understanding of the sacred is that it is at least in part a “mode of perception,” and he is interested in its “everyday manifestations,” as in a recent study he made of a doorstop left in his studio by a previous artist that raised both the more tame question of how we distinguish an art object from an ordinary object, and the deeper question of what psychological schemata of sacred objects underlie that distinction.


The resulting installation, Just so Richard chuckles conditionally, also draws on two of Juras’ major influences, Richard Tuttle and Robert Irwin. Irwin directly informs Juras’ interest in wonder and the numinous (a term coined by religious scholar Rudolf Otto, the numinous describes the struture of sacredness without content, a kind of rhetoric of the sacred rather than any particular message). “Looking back to Irwin’s writing, whose emphasis on perception is how he defines art-the essence of the artwork is a sense of wonder,” Juras notes, “and it takes daily practice to train to see that.” From Tuttle also comes what I first partly attributed to Juras’ background in design: “there’s a removal of self without being nihilist in order to let the work manifest itself… getting out of the way in order to become a conduit.” Juras admires how Tuttle manages to create out of “the humility of his materials… a sculpture with such a small scale could have so much presence.” Humility is a privileged term for Juras: “I want to offer up that my studio practice is also a search for everyday Otherness… This practice demands a sense of humility stemming from an acceptance that there exists something wholly Other than yourself.”


Juras’ own attempt to work with the everyday, humble, even banal in a sacred register– the everyday manifestations of numinousness– was, in the case of the doorstop, “about access– a small gesture whose performance makes all the difference, that oscillates between the functional and the aesthetic.” But the very smallness of this gesture can be both quietly stunning and often just at the edge between irony and grace. Hence an upcoming exhibition in mid-June at Strange Beauty Show, in collaboration with artist Kyle Fletcher, that takes the images and objects of the American beauty industry, is both site-specific and perfectly suited to Juras’ attempts to to uncover the ordinary’s, the functional’s, potential for numinousness. New Looks combines altered images of beauty magazines, and the objects for beautification, like hair pieces, into objects that, in Juras’ words, will continue his quest to “torque everyday banality” and help us see it for its endless potential as secular benediction.

New Looks opens at Strange Beauty Show, 1118 N. Ashland, on June 13th.