Double Take: The Body Double at Frederik Meijer Sculpture Gardens
Body Double: The Figure in Contemporary Sculpture opened at the Frederik Meijer Sculpture Gardens on September 19, in conjunction with ArtPrize. Given its distance from the downtown hub of activity, it likely escaped the attention of many people who would otherwise appreciate such an exhibit. Fortunately, there is still a month left before it closes on January 9, 2013.
While there is a strong tradition of figurative sculpture in the Western world, non-objective art fares better than nearly any other subject matter in the contemporary art market (more so even than adorable anthropomorphized Labrador Retriever puppies). As per Immanuel Kant, one of the criteria for aesthetic judgment is disinterestedness, and it is impossible to be disinterested in the human body—real, painted, or sculpted. The human figure, implicitly or explicitly described, continues to be one of the most powerfully evocative subjects in art.
I was not surprised to hear ambivalent reactions from some patrons at Body Double. Nudity will offend puritanical sensibilities, but many of the works are admittedly challenging. I want to commend the curator Joseph Becherer for assembling this exhibition, because there are not many local venues that can or will showcase figurative works. That being said, while there are some remarkable examples including contributions by Alison Saar, Dora Natella, and Deanna Morse, there are five that compromise the tone of an otherwise extraordinary exhibition, and several that would have benefitted from alternative placement.
Toe to Toe, by Khalil Chishtee, made of white garbage bags, represents a figure composed of two identical sets of legs joined at the waist. As the first work visible, it is not unreasonable to assume that some patrons may have not have ventured further. Christy Singleton’s Sally, a giant waxy doll form emerging from wallpaper, is regrettably the second work noticed upon entering the exhibition space. Its scale and palette are overbearing juxtaposed with two smaller more finely crafted works by Lim Seung-Chung and Rolf Jacobson placed just outside the doors of the main space. Unfortunately two of the strongest pieces in the exhibit, Carole Feuerman’s Quan, and Dora Natella’s Overseer, are located outdoors. While both can be seen from the gallery, they may be overlooked, or not understood as part of the featured exhibit.
Jun Lee’s Bystander Effect, consists of a series of small figures standing in a pose not unlike Rodin’s studies of Honoré de Balzac. While I appreciate the introduction of color, the small scale combined with the surface treatment resembling Japanese Temari balls, is incompatible with its theme of alienation. Angel Vapor was able to achieve a kind of monumentality in Labor, which includes a small figure engaged in the act of leveling concrete with a screed. It is reminiscent of Gustave Caillebote’s The Floor Planers (1875), because the human form is transformed by the act of labor, and displays a kind of nobility that belies its size. I would have liked to see this piece juxtaposed to Lawrence Epps Human Resources, , described as exemplifying dehumanization of the laborer, consisting of thousands of flat clay figures, each of which carries a briefcase.
Understandably the image of a human in distress produces a visceral response in the subject/viewer, but suffice to change one feature, and we still respond strongly. Zhang Dali’s self-portrait, is conventional but suspended inversely. Lim Seung Chung’s half-scale figure A Cast Away, is notable for the inclusion of a third eye. Carole Feuerman’s polychrome swimmer Quan is a youthful athlete, the paragon of human perfection in Western art since antiquity, except she is about 20% larger than the average human, and completely absorbed in the peculiar task of balancing on a ball on her hands and knees.
The human figure is suggested by its absence in Anne Harrington Hughes’, The Dying We Lived Through, an assemblage of found objects including a dresser, china, and clothing, arranged above a bed of salt. The body can also be effectively described through parts, particularly hands, which are second only to the face in their expressive potentiality. For example, Meri Tancrendi’s Templum, engages the viewer with its elegant arrangement of LED-lit X-rays of hands, suspended in a ring above a series of white stones. Upon closer inspection it is revealed that each of the hands is missing a finger, which seems to emerge from the corresponding stone below. Curiously, the arrangement suggests a reliquary rather than a record of tragedy.
Templum is formally and conceptually a fitting pendant to Cort Savage’s Canons. The latter features three large rubber balls, tethered to mounted light boxes, each of which displays an X-ray of a skull and a sacred text (identified as the Tanakh, Qur’an, and Bible). What is compelling about Cannons is the unremarkable sameness of these receptacles of knowledge—the book, the brain. The X-rays here serve as a metaphor for scientific or hermeneutic analysis. The rubber-bound artefacts while protected, are also censored or rendered mute.
Deana Morse’s video Skin, scrolls through a series of images alternating between tree bark and hands of elderly individuals. Set to a gentle woodland soundtrack of insects, frogs, and birds, it creates a wonderful analogy between identity and surface. Just as the bark of a tree reveals its species and particular history, so too does the surface of one’s hands. Alison Saar also combines botany with anatomy in Foison and Fallow. This formidable pair, inspired by Renaissance anatomical prints, open their torsos to reveal objects that serve as metaphors for fecundity.
Carol Schwartz’ Harriet and Louis, the only figures with formal names, form a solid and charming duo, who look with obstinate disapproval towards Dame of the Castoffs (the most incongruous inclusion in the exhibition). Schwartz’ polychrome wood figures are reminiscent of those by Marisol from the 1960s, but with surfaces that suggest the patina of well-worn toys.
Dora Natella’s Overseer is an excellent example of the expressive potentiality of the human form. Standing upon a pedestal about ten feet high, she is just under life-sized, posed with her head downcast, eyes closed, and hands crossed over her chest. The pose and tone suggests the quiet self-contained acceptance the Virgin Mary in Fra Angelico’s Annunciation paintings. Her legs appear to be wrapped in lengths of fabric, like the swaddled babies in della Robbia’s medallions on the Ospedale degli Innocenti. Understood as swaddling or bandages, the wrappings imply nurturing or healing, and yet they seem restrictive. The figure is white, a color associated with purity, but also suggestive of ash and death. While her form is completely white, her features are distinctly non-caucasian. Is she a ghost, or an angel without wings? She could be a guardian, but her closed eyes and posture seem too submissive. In spite of her static pose, there is a sense that something profound is happening internally. Overseer invites the viewer to determine her meaning, but includes many subtle contradictions that resist a single interpretation.
Body Double: The Figure in Contemporary Sculpture is on display at the Frederik Meijer Sculpture Gardens through January 9, 2013. The facility is open seven days a week. Admission is free to members, $12 for adults. Please consult their web site for details regarding holiday hours and admission.