Bruce Gagnier: Shouldering into the Past
Bruce Gagnier: Corpus at Lori Bookstein Fine Art
June 4 to July 3, 2015
138 10th Avenue (between 18th and 19th streets)
New York, 212 750 0949
In his fifth exhibition at Lori Bookstein Fine Art, called “Corpus,” Bruce Gagnier continues developing his curiously articulated figures into a rugged opus of forceful, dignified gravitas.
One is greeted outside the entrance by a heroic bronze, Sys (2011), with a green-brown patina; inside, nine standing sculptures and a handful of drawings of heads populate the gallery. Gagnier’s deeply personal manipulation of human form has now become noticeably more subtle and comprehensive in the new work, even within this exhibition. For instance: whereas in The Boxer (1990-2000) the figure’s shoulders are starkly disrupted from the torso and the hands reduced to stubs, by comparison Lena (2015) appears almost graceful.
Contributing to the sculptures’ oddness is the startling dynamics of the anatomy. Skewed into opposing planes, the head, torso, and pelvis of each piece charge the figures with disturbing restlessness, albeit quieted from earlier works such as Princess Y (2008) or Emma (2007), both exhibited at Lori Bookstein in 2010. The feet, roughly hewn and solid, are often pressed right up against the edges of the bases upon which they rest. Curiously articulated toes grip the base and create a palpable tension that is shot upwards into the aggravated volumes of the body. The arms have an odd straightness and, spearing downwards, effectively oppose the surge from the legs and torso, projecting the head upwards. The entire complex of rhythms and counter rhythms that orchestrate the body find their full resolution in the head, where all of Gagnier’s inventiveness finds its fullest expression and the features are articulated into stunning configurations. In Yensine (2015), the face is opened up to reveal an astonishing distance between her right nostril and tear duct, which, coupled with a widened leap to the ear thus elongates the head horizontally to thrilling proportions, all of which triggers almost audible traces of bereavement or loss. In Yrsa (2014), the entire face is shifted to the right, the ears thrust far, far back and the head contorted into a surprisingly serenity.
To understand the palpable emotive impact of the exhibition is to recognize that Gagnier’s direction is not reducible to merely formal concerns, but seems to be triggered by what Leon Golub called “The Dervish Principle,” namely “that the prime elemental resources with the psyche have intense pictorial equivalents.” Every facet of each sculpture is conceived or driven by an overall purpose — that of creating and revealing the psyche of a persona, or character. Gagnier consciously works with such a purpose and feels a given sculpture is successful only relative to his having awakened a truly individual persona. In his studio, as he slices a compromising section of a thigh or torso off, shifting it to one side or adding it to another sculpture altogether, Gagnier is searching for a truly visceral construction of character.
Even as he finds a broader solution to the composition of new work, where one remarks the consistently leaning torsos, arms spiked downwards, low waists, squatting legs — Cleo (2015) and May (2014) being notable exceptions — he manages to tune each form to a convincing individual. In Ludovic (2015) the left leg advances, the left arm is thrust stiffly back and turned towards the thigh, the head solemnly level. In May, by contrast, the left leg is tentatively pushed forward, the left arm bent back behind the body, but now flexing outwards and the head is tilted up into a rather dreamy, hopeful pose. As all the forms of the body are eventually summed into a whole being, each formal equation being valued largely on the basis of its emotive and psychic possibilities, characters do emerge, and quite odd characters at that. Part of their peculiar power is that oddity. Each appears to be conceived in an almost distraught groping for a very specific arrangement of forms that will awaken within the figure and viewer those broad and deep fields of human emotions such as loss, redemption and pathos, Nothing light or effervescent is on display in this exhibition. The figures are then given names that for the viewer may be either laden with content or unnervingly foreign (they are, in fact, suggested to him, almost on whim, by his wife, the painter Tine Lundsfryd).
Inherent in an appreciation of this sculptor’s work is to feel their relevance within the great trajectory of sculptural tradition. Gagnier himself defines his efforts as shouldering-in among the powerful achievements of the past — be they northern European sculptures of the late-Renaissance, Edgar Degas’s small sketches of horses and women, or the monumental bronzes of Auguste Rodin. Gagnier allows his knowledge and his love of the history of sculpture to nurture and inform his work, while at the same time creating images deeply personal to him. His opus is an apt illustration of what T.S. Eliot speaks about in his essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” writing: “The existing monuments form an ideal order among themselves… complete before the new work arrives; for order to persist after the supervention of novelty, the whole order must be, if ever so slightly, altered.” And that is exactly the experience of Gagnier’s oeuvre. The powerful surge of the past is, in the end, contained and expanded. The work has indeed shouldered the old order into a new configuration — a configuration that now allows for their scarred and battered, torqued and twisted, devastatingly soulful presence.