Thursday, December 15, 2011

THE HUMAN CLAY


"To me," wrote W. H. Auden, "Art's subject is the human clay,/And landscape but a background to a torso;/All Cezanne's apples I would give away/For one small Goya or a Daumier." Well, I don't go all the way with Auden on this one, but I do believe that what we should expect from art is that it tell us more about our own humanity. An abstract painting, though, can do this just as well as figurative work. So, no, I wouldn't give away Cezanne's apples. On the other hand, there was for years an unfortunate tendency in modern and contemporary art--and in writing about modern and contemporary art--to dismiss the figure as no longer relevant; it still persists, in some quarters. And with that, I disagree. Profoundly.

Still, it's also not much use for an artist simply to repeat today what has been well done in the past, no matter how skillfully. Not that I can get anything less from Goya and Daumier for having seen their work before; as my friend Tony de los Reyes told his high school class last week, we never look at the same painting twice. We bring a new and different self each time we look at it, just as the context in which we approach the painting changes. But to be interesting and challenging, new art must tell me something new about my humanity, something I may recognize and assent to as what I have always known in some profound part of my being, but have never met in quite this form before. I must feel that Yes! resonate in my heart and soul, and must come away a more fully formed--and in-formed--human being.

All this as a preamble to a few words about "eyehand: Selected Sculpture from 1975- 2011," the current Peter Shelton show at LA Louver Gallery. I have known Peter's work for years and have admired it for its ability to evoke in me precisely the response I describe above. A "sculptor"--that word seems a little inadequate these days--he works primarily, though not exclusively, with the human figure. He works at it from the outside and from within, showing us what is recognizably our anatomy. But Shelton is no literalist. His vision takes the literal anatomy and makes it his own...

Peter Shelton
reddress, 1998-2011
red paint over fiberglass
62 x 77 x 55 in. (157.5 x 195.6 x 139.7 cm)
Courtesy of L.A. Louver, Venice, CA

A limb or a torso may be elongated...

Peter Shelton
birthbone[, 1991-92
mixed media
113 x 19 x 7 1/2 in. (287 x 48.3 x 19.1 cm)
Courtesy of L.A. Louver, Venice, CA

... or otherwise distorted; an internal organ may be inflated or distended...

Peter Shelton
twobiglobe, 2011
mixed media, fiberglass
68 x 75 x 38 in. (172.7 x 190.5 x 96.5 cm)
Courtesy of L.A. Louver, Venice, CA

... sometimes with unsettlingly humorous results as we are confronted with the radical strangeness of these bodies we are given to walk around in, their vulnerability, and our self-consciousness about them. I recall the cultural critic, Leslie Fiedler's thesis that we all experience ourselves in some way as freaks--as children, for example, at the earliest moments in our lives, comparing our small selves to the giants who surround us. As adults, we fuss about our waistline, our stature, our physical defects, comparing ourselves constantly to others or to imagined standards of normalcy.

It's this feeling, for me, that Shelton's work taps into most deeply, confronting us with dream--or nightmare--visions of what it means to be a physical being in the world. That he asks us, eye and mind, at the same time, to join in the play of paradoxical relationships between weight and lightness, inner and outer, space and volume adds to the rich texture of associations he engages. The word "avoirdupois" comes pleasurably to mind. We experience a kind of gravity, in both the physical and the metaphorical sense, a heaviness of actual weight combined with a lightness of being. The work asks us to take measure of our own weight and height as we stand in its vicinity; and it manages to be somehow alarmingly monumental and almost painfully intimate at the same time. It intrudes itself upon our physical as well as on our psychic space and leaves us, yes, more fully aware of what it is to be a human being.

As a footnote, this (unofficial, non-gallery!) picture shows me having a little irreverent fun with Shelton's sculpture. I happen to think that it also says something about that element of absurdity that creeps into the work, its friendly grotesquerie...


And, as a bonus, my own snapshot of the installation...



3 comments:

gregg chadwick said...

Great review Peter. Shelton's work is always wonderful and thought provoking.

PeterAtLarge said...

Thanks, Gregg. Good to hear from you. Will have a review copy of the now-named "Mind Work" for you in the New Year! Cheers, P

gregg chadwick said...

Can't wait to see "Mind Work"
Congrats Peter