Art in America, November 1986, Vol. 74, N° 11, p. 169
by Wade Saunders & Anne Rochette —
Though Antony Gormley belongs by age and career to the so-called New British Sculptors, his work has been less visible in New York than that of Tony Cragg, Bill Woodrow, Anish Kapoor and others. Like many of his compatriots Gormley has used existing objects and explored relatively low-tech materials and processes, but his now persistent involvement with the human figure sets his work apart.
Gormley’s working method warrants discussion because it has been central to the meaning, possibilities and limits of his sculpture. With a couple of exceptions, all the pieces in this exhibition were made by applying a thin plaster shell to Gormley’s own posed body. This shell was then reinforced with fiberglass and subsequently covered with a skin pieced together of sheet lead, so that the resulting figure exceeds life-size by exactly its own thickness. Some of the lead seams are welded and disappear in lead’s particular grayness; others are soldered, the tin forming a bright, roughly foot-square grid which encloses the figure in a structural order.
Each of the three processes the pieces undergo adds a measure of indeterminacy to the human shape. The body’s relation to its skeleton is ambiguous, resulting at times in slackness and repetitiveness in the forms. The feet lose their arches, the hands often seem enclosed in mittens, the waist no longer articulates torso and hips. And by rooting the work in his own body, Gormley inevitably restricts his perspectives to those of a young adult male; sexuality, for example, can only be alluded to by the erect penis.
In contrast to George Segal, whose figures generally make manifest their social station, Gormley suppresses the figure’s larger context. The bodies are always naked, devoid of any social, cultural or historical reference, and they are without exception arrested in a basic state or single action: lying, standing, crouching, walking, looking. Although they occupy a space continuous with our own, they usually are presented in distant or self-absorbed poses. Gormley counters his figures’ generality, however, by providing each with some sort of semi-theatrical bit of business—via either a second element, or some unexpected interaction with the world.
In View the figure crouches and stares fixedly into a large terra-cotta amphora lying on the floor. In Home and the World the figure strains forward from a leaning position; a tongue-like tube extends diagonally from his mouth down to the floor and runs another ten feet forward, giving the figure the appearance of either sucking in or blowing out. At Gormley’s best, as in these two pieces, we feel we are watching activities that are, like the figures, grander than normal, a quintessential expression of man’s relation to his world: he looks intensely at it, he breathes it in, he breathes it out. Other times, as in Idea, with its clay egg balanced on the head of a walking man, the piece may become a one-line joke—a trite performance.
The most impressive sculpture in the show, and one that bodes well, marks a departure in method. Fathers and Sons, Gods and Artists, Monuments and Toys consists of two figures: an 8½-foot-tall male looking over and down to a block-like boy who stands sideways to him some 20 feet away, staring up and forward. Modeled rather than molded, this pair is formally and structurally precise, functioning well both as sculptural mass and as a surrogate for human presence. The child stands alone, totally oblivious of any connection or indebtedness to the watching father. The nervous, silent expanse between the two stretches their visual connectedness and gives the piece both a psychological and formal tension. Though stripped of context and traditional figurative detail, the sculpture turns its pose, placement and scale to strategic ends. It is both monumental and affecting.
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