伯樂相馬 Bo Le looks at a horse 伯樂一顧 Bo Le glances back
Founded in 2013 in Seoul, Thomas Park has shown artists from the US, Korea, and elsewhere who have great potentials to show who they are as artists, what art means to us now. Together we look, talk, contemplate, explore, and exhibit.
MAKING ROOM for REAL:
On two exhibitions of Bruce Gagnier
Two exhibitions of sculpture of Bruce Gagnier ran concurrently, all figures. At Thomas Park, plasters half-life-size and smaller, and at the Gallery of the New York Studio School, a crowd of ten life-size bronzes.
The bronzes from 2009-17 are more familiar. The selection from 1983 to 2019 at Thomas Park includes four quite recent plasters. They depart so decidedly from the bronzes that, in effect, all the works exhibited in both spaces make a setting for the newest. Gagnier’s figures have long been famously difficult. The NYSS exhibition, Stance, could have been called “Leaning Precariously,” “Tilt” or “Shamble.” Good Figure at Thomas Park takes a bounce from the Italian bella figura, the not-untranslatable expression for appropriate, graceful and perhaps even comely appearance in public. A bella figura, however, was not the artist’s intention. His people tend to everything but.
In reviews thus far, their perhaps most frequently cited epithet is “disconcerting.” But the artist did not mean to shock. He is, against some obvious appearances, a realist. Some realists claim in all innocence to paint just what they see, and wind up far beyond it. Realism is sometimes a visionary enterprise that, no apologies, unmakes the world to find room for itself. In his own soft-spoken way, Gagnier certainly does not shrink from intervention to get to what he sees.
These pieces startle and throw us back before we can come nearer. Their physical features wander awkwardly out of place, limbs shorten unaccountably or lurch toward the ground, perhaps failing against gravity. And then so many paunches, small and large, and unseemly gaping hollows between them; why? When people ask the artist do we look like that? He answers look in the mirror. You may be taken aback, but this artist seriously means to hold a mirror to life. He disrupted ordinary appearances by literally feeling his way around the body, wrangling pointed questions of being, as experienced from the inside out. How steady, really, are we are on our feet? How long will we keep this up? And seriously, do we look anything like how we meant to present ourselves and how we presume to see each other?
Yet among the bronzes at the Studio School Gallery (they are ten, in two rooms, but one feels they are surely more than ten altogether) one notices that however disconcerted at first, visitors approach them readily and with familiarity, their social-distance melts away. In fact, the figures become more comprehensible within the artist’s original arms-reach in fashioning them. Their construction could have been as haptic as it was visual as if the maker had felt his way down their limbs hand over hand. One feels the artist and the figure worked together bodily, shoulder to shoulder. What they did is not sensuous, but it is the quite literal impress of an intimate confrontation, all closeup. As if the two had refused to back off, or back up. No longer views: they risked “composition” and bet everything on their physical contest. Little wonder the figures finally totter, seemingly exhausted.
For all his awareness of the past, Gagnier doesn’t want it in his work. When a figure underway accrues some classical aspect, he considers himself obliged to fight it off, preferring the chaos (his word) of his reality to any borrowed semblance of poise. The visibly present life, episode by episode unique, rules his method. No compromises, none he can help. The emergent figure’s humanity is all, and, at least to start, it is lurching, uncertain, golem-like.
But a figure that “awakens” begs a question: was our “realist” an observer, or not? Although Gagnier has a long history of observation from models, every piece in both exhibitions was accomplished without a model. Each figure is essentially a character study, not a portrait. Each involved plenty of experience—we could only guess where and how and whom, but not an observation from a model. Instead, each is character-driven, with life filling up to accord with an invention. The artist wants life, he insists on it absolutely, but he has a job for it.
We know his figures begin top-down, with a head (he has a special gift for heads-- a select bunch was seen in the Thomas Park backroom, one or two of them might be distantly portrait-ish, but they all feel freely riffed-- no two alike). Gagnier has to “get” the head before he can fashion a body. So presumably each figure began with the armature as an empty rack, a bare platform for a bust, before a body dressed it down to the floor.
Artists know that in the absence of a model, things happen. Stuff gets in and it wanders. Gagnier has been open to that exchange for years: inside for outside —one kind of life for another— but in the most recent plasters, one feels that his impulses took a different walk. They entered another door and breathed a lighter air. The newest figures have one foot on a stage. Each entailed a vital comic share and with that, they became perhaps more real.
Gagnier has said flatly he doesn’t like fantasy. He’s no fabulist; he’s a foible-ist. His real, now more comic, is tinged or weighted to an incipient misstep—not merely leaning. The new personages are long sums of gaucheries indulged and gently enjoyed, approaching satire, but not going there. Is there ever satire without malice, however delicate, and a better idea, denied? He savors weakness, and weaknesses, but he is no critic, as he is no historian, though he remembers. Having leaned so very far from calm-grandeur-and-noble-simplicity classicism (Goethe’s for one), he’s landed in something more like a corner of Fellini’s Satyricon (let’s say the Roman comedy episode), not raucous but a bit sweaty, a bit brutish and mildly hilarious. The new figures are no solitaries, and quite far from statues. They’ve become social, loiterers hanging out somewhere beyond their pedestals. One could catch up to them, like people in the street, or call to them from the wings. The newest four seem the first arrivals in a forthcoming Greek chorus. Wandering-eyed and close-mouthed as before, these new figures are just coming into a say. Lately their existential unquiet may be just heard, at a low murmur, a whisper or a lisp.
We are extending
Bruce Gagnier's exhibition,
Good Figure at 55 Berry St.
Please email at firstname.lastname@example.org
to see the show.
If I make a good figure, then perhaps I will have made a sculpture. Sculpture as content is of no interest to me - the figure is.
Good Figure focuses on plaster works from the crucial years, 2019 and 1983 of Bruce Gagnier's practice. Traditionally, plaster has been considered an intermediary material for being used in the casting process as an artist proof. It creates an optimal surface for light and shadow, in fact, bringing a sculpture to life. Just as Giacometti valued plaster for its humble, fragile quality, Gagnier thinks highly of the material. Plaster is malleable as clay, but it dries to the end material that ages beautifully. The moral side of Gagnier’s sculpture lies in its process; the figure changes without a predetermined image, so does the artist himself. Through this process, the truth of the human situation is unfurled; we are in a constant tension between inner life and outer circumstances. Plaster is a good material to deliver a sense of being in this state, being a human, the representation of it, and its ever-changing, evanescent aspects of human life.
Bruce Gagnier (born 1941) studied art history at Williams College and attended the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture and Columbia University, where he studied with Nicholas Carone, Peter Agostini and John Heliker. He has been in numerous solo and group exhibitions throughout the world for over 40 years of his career. Most recently, Gagnier received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2016, also the Arts and Letters Award in Art from the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 2014. In 2004, he was elected Academician by the National Academy. Gagnier has taught at Yale University, Sarah Lawrence, Parsons, Haverford College and the International School of Art in Umbria, Italy. Between 1979 - 2017, he taught drawing and sculpture at the New York Studio School. Currently, he teaches drawing at the NYSS. Gagnier lives and works in Brooklyn.