On the human figure...
form and expression
form and expression
The difficulty of mastering the figure is prohibitive to contemporary investigation and so has faded from the academic standard. This has inevitably led to an inability of the modern practitioner to ascertain the figure, while response to contemporary investigation is blanket anachronism. In my practice, the rigor of addressing the figure is an essential driver of ongoing maturity, and traditional materials and technique are essential aspects of this discourse. The original sculpture must embody technical and aesthetic mastery to sustain sublimation, and this transfers across media: for example Michelangelo's Laurentian Library or the Dome of St.Peter's, and Bernini's Collonade.
Just as music can change heart rate and color can shape mood, the medium of the sculpted figure engenders autonomic sympathetic response in an immediate emotive relationship with the viewer.
My approach to sculpting the figure is an intuitive process grounded in practice with the live model, familiarity with anatomical structure, formal concern, and media. The figure acts as a challenging vehicle for exploration: rhythm, balance, and gesture are the core signifiers I engage with, allowing anatomy and naturalism to serve as a secondary consideration to expression. Expression of the figure emerges from the act of sculpting in relation to the model, rather than stylization or thematic narrative. Through focus on practice, a more nuanced emotive dialogue may occur- similar to a complex color phrase or musical harmony.
Persephone was the final figure I created in clay during my first undergrad figure sculpture class with Professor John Berland. Berland had come out of retirement offering a few classes to keep active after a heart attack- when he stood beside you offering comments his pacemaker would tic along metronomically to his voice. His art training had been attained in an era when rigorous study of the figure was a core aspect of any sculpture program. In his day, the sculptor focused on the art while a slew of craftspeople would vie to pull molds from anyone with talent. He noted that the hardest part of staying dedicated to figurative work now was that the entire back end of production was up to the artist as well. This glut of non-creative technical labor wears away at the time and patience dedicated to achieve any true ability with figurative work. He liked my sculpture enough to show me how to create a plaster waste-mold so I could create a bronze casting in the college foundry where I worked as an assistant. He recognized that I was the only person remaining at university who could muster the entire process, and dedicated his own time to walk me through the mold process- an entire chapter is dedicated to the process in Edouard Lanteri's third treatise on representational sculpture; Modelling and Sculpting Animals. After another semester of figure modelling with him, he brought me to his office to talk about figurative work as an art-form, and how important the aesthetic and the practice is, and that it is essentially lost. He ran his classes measuring only with string; no calipers and little discussion of anatomy beyond basic skeletal structure, and muscles of major volumetric/functional concern. This helped him to bring along those with natural ability, and dropped away the expressionless "anatomists". He told me about the East Coast academic figurative tradition whose terminus is competitive concrete function-driven pony-shows that foster a false direction and act as a nail in the coffin of the tradition. He encouraged having an anatomy book as a reference, but not to have it in the same room as the life-model. Natural ability will seek out information of anatomy in a longer span of experience, and grow in harmony with the direction of the artist- as it must live with the artist far beyond the brief academic window.
In my MFA process I worked with the figure for one semester before being barred upon threat of expulsion from continuing by my graduate committee. The sculpture department had recently been expunged of all traditional subjects, hiding all the life-modelling equipment in basement storage and shutting down the casting facility. In my final semester this limitation was removed, and it was estimated that in one semester I could create a single cast figure- as a best estimation of what would occur at a figure academy in Boston. I created a show with 22 cast figures, that I cast in the university foundry in bronze and aluminum, creating a new waste-mold casting method as part of the esoteric drive of my work. My written thesis became the example thesis for future graduate students, then the written thesis was dropped altogether. An adjunct friend, who taught all the remnants of skill-based classes from woodshop to welding to small metals, took me out to lunch after matriculation to ascertain that I had indeed come with all the skills I used and that the university had added nothing. He was right; and that it was a liability to demonstrate those skills as well, as the students realized a lost world of knowledge specifically withheld.
My MFA exhibition, coupled with my rapport with the art history department and in turn the curator of modern art at the Utah Museum of Fine Art, led to a private commission with the state's most notable arts family, (who had just built the new Utah Museum of Fine Art on the University campus next to the fine arts department); a commission for the new Utah Symphony & Opera Production Center of my proposed idea of Orpheus and Eurydice. Because of the prestige of the donor, I was allowed one semester to cast at the University facility, as long as my studio was off-campus. The architect creating the new building offered me studio space in a vacant bay of an old one-story brick complex he owned. I sculpted the 2/3 life-size figures there, and pulled the molds and waxes. At University I used the archaic Investment-Mold casting process, then weld (with a lovely new industrial-grade beast I had bought to thank the department), chase, and patina, with an additional large abstraction built from the figures and two partial figures for a fountain. The donor commissioned an additional pair of the Orpheus and Eurydice figures for the foundation collection. All the figures followed my MFA aesthetic, of a unique casting process unobtainable by modern casting methods, that results in significant random and uncontrolled flashing across the surface of the figure, among other process marks.
Upon installation the donor and the director of the Utah Symphony and Opera were happy with the work and hoped that the placement, offering great exposure to all the important local art collectors and arts-centric funding foundation representatives, would lead to my work finding a wider backing with further commissions both public and private. This optimism was from individuals who moved in international arts culture, while living in a uniquely particular culture that had no discernment for The Nude as a significant aesthetic, with a moral certitude that the naked is synonymous with the profane. When the director of the organization inevitably moved on in her career path, a replacement was found, and soon after the figures gained clothing made by the costume department at the production center. Soon after that metal thieves disassembled the building's evaporative cooling system, then returned the next night to take the copper gutters and all of my sculptures; all to shred down and sell as scrap metal. I'm sure it was a relief for everyone involved, as the insurance money for the lost art was collected, with no interest in replacing the Nude figures. These destroyed pieces are the only public art I have created that is aligned with my own aesthetic; in other words, the only commission that a patron saw my Master's Thesis Exhibition work and said "Yes, your work is amazing, but bigger please"- and for the public, and in front of a major arts building.
This isn't entirely different than how things went for my mentor in the figure, John Berland. He had been selected to create a nationally significant set of bronze doors; think Ghiberti's "The Gates of Paradise" of the Baptistry of St.John at the Florence Duomo or Rodin's Gates of Hell. He had produced the majority of the figures over a span of years, had pulled molds from the work, and plaster's from the molds. HIs work was wonderfully post-modern encapsulating the process of bronze casting and mold making as integral to the finished forms. One might even say that they were not really accomplishable until fully formed in their final bronze media. These potentials of finished works crowded a series of high shelves that ran the course of the sculpture department at Colorado State University, where he was a renowned professor. The entire commission was cancelled due to problems with the construction of the building they were to accompany, just as Rodin's commission for The Gates of Hell was cancelled. Where Rodin already had international fame and continued working on The Gates for decades to fulfill his own exploration, Berland had no such option and all the molds and plaster models were destroyed, and all the in-progress work abandoned- or so it was told to me by my professor there at the time who had studied there under Prof. Berland. And so his abilities with the figure remained academic. Where he may have leapt to international recognition, he instead was a great university instructor of the figure. This also is no longer a possibility, and is a mirage of a lost era, a time before Universities adapted their pervasive corporate model of downsizing professorial positions in favor of rotations of disposable adjuncts.