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There is motion; but nothing moves. And change; yet the objects stand still in time. There is form, and mass; and the suggestion of form, a visibly defined absence of mass. Here, shadow and object meld. Above all, there is a deep, moving inspiration, expressed in faultless technique. Herbert George's current exhibition of sculpture and sculptural assemblage, "Shadow Portraits/Still Life Sculptures," is scheduled to run from June 2 through July 8, 2000 at Fassbender Gallery, 835 West Washington in Chicago's West Loop Gate Gallery District. "Shadow Portraits/Still Life Sculptures" rewards each repeated visit.
This showing at Fassbender Gallery offers six of Herbert George's "Shadow Portraits," and three of the sculptor's larger "Still Life Sculptures," and each immediate impression gives way to increased discovery and delight. In this exhibition, the curation (and catalogue) are excellent. The "Shadow Portraits," executed in Vermont marble, rest slightly below eye level, on pedestals, and their orientations are designed to seduce investigation. A viewer is presented with what first seems a taciturn, minimal stone object. As one approaches and circles, each reveals multiple sculptural images harmoniously conceived as one. Each vantage point focuses alternate features in sequence: the agile sensitivity to dimensionality and angle of view causes shifts in what one perceives and -- often suddenly, unexpectedly -- what one recognizes as a new configuration. Mind anticipates the portrait's visual clues, "it knows how the hidden parts of face or hand must emerge," only to confront a fresh, novel turn of imagination. Both the sculpture, and the room's lighting, showcase art which draws from figuration, but which reinterprets its vision with bows toward analytical abstraction. This sculpture's human features bend toward the geometries of curved space and polar coordinates. The sculpture of Herbert George exploits dimensionality to its fullest.
The work in "Shadow Portraits/Still Life Sculptures" plays with the shifting perspective between a walking viewer and the sculptural object, and does this beyond the shaped masses, angles and coherent flow of the object's own physical form. As one circles a piece, one feels a cinematographic effect of sequence -- the dynamic of light and perspective -- a logic of perception which cyclically ends wherever a viewer first started, and in this process each sculpture permutes its identity and effects.
Herbert George at times creates an impression that solid marble was plied and kneaded as if rubber; that it flows, is pressed out by forms within, or compliant to forms pushing from without. Such effect is particularly strong in Shadow Portrait of Barnett Newman: face resolves as if from beneath stone, and appears to move as if shadow from light. In many pieces, form 'shadows' itself: George plays with image recessed and in relief. With Shadow Portrait of Ezra Pound, at the area directly behind the overt visage which is partially masked by an enclosing hand, a viewer confronts a symmetry recessed into the stone -- it is a face behind the immediate countenance. It sinks into the stone and evokes a covert alter ego that stares through stone to gaze from behind the overt mask before it, to gaze at the viewer. It stands as a real, palpable shadow of the visible but illusory persona in relief. Shadow Portrait of Ezra Pound well captures the essence of a poet who so arduously expounded upon artistic and social personae, the mask before the self. In Shadow Portrait of Man Ray, himself a serious player of photographic light, the recessed area counterpoints the portrait relief, as negative to positive; and in Shadow Portrait of Barnett Newman, features both in relief and incised, add to the impression of sudden motion, or of light in blur. But in all these, the medium is stone.
Indeed, Herbert George displays an impressive instinct for the ambiguities of 'figure and ground.' One recalls Edgar Rubin's two dimensional experiments: "Is it a vase, or opposing silhouettes of two people, face to face?" And there is the two-dimensional work of M.C. Escher or Joseph Albers's flat renderings of three-dimensionally 'impossible objects' such as his Structural Constellations (1953-58). In viewing the "Shadow Portraits" of Herbert George, a shift in vantage reconfigures one image into a very different, but sequentially 'right' extrapolation, a new 'shadow.' One feels a desire to touch, to Braille-read the stone, just to follow and confirm the compositional continuities.
Herbert George's contrast of textures, often flowing and polished, with areas of a coarser, gouged and pitted working, not only articulates aesthetic choice in the work, but sustains a counterbalancing awareness that the artist's hand has brought this out from the all-too-rigid stone. The sculptor both challenges and affirms his sculptural material. And George often transcends stone. The work masterfully exploits volumes of space implied and set by the forms and masses of the solid material. One feels this in Shadow Portrait of Marcel Duchamp, where, varying with the view, one discerns three portraits within the one piece. Here, the cranial space, abetted by the recessed bowl where a 'brain might rest,' is not a void -- a viewer fills it mentally, but as open and without bounds. In Shadow Portrait of Marcel Duchamp, the area of nose to chin resolves clearly, but at back, the neck becomes a faceted abstraction of character.
A 1987 notebook excerpt of the sculptor observes:
In these pieces, one may note how freely the effects of shadow, apparent motion, and even sequential and yet persistent image are captured and exchanged across negative space and positive mass. With each change of angle, the viewer embraces a new, but kindred work. That George is well aware of what he achieves is confirmed by a notebook entry, AD 2000: "To approach the meaning of something it is often necessary to discover its opposite. Stone becomes the material of shadows as I carve it away." Herbert George plays upon the identity of objects: what we perceive is conditioned by how we perceive it, and at what moment and from what vantage.
That George captures an essence of character in his portraits is certain, although a viewer does well to recall the words of sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brzeska who, writing to the poet about his 1914 portrait, Hieratic Head of Ezra Pound, cautioned that: "[the] forth-coming portrait will not look like you. It will be the expression of certain emotions which I get from your character." (In Gaudier-Brzeska, A Memoir, Marvell Press: 1960.)
The "Still Life Sculptures" reveal a strong perceptual wit, 'a smile at the senses.' These are George's newest direction in sculpture. Soft, pliant clothes have been often rendered in stone, but usually as a tour de force secondary to figurative expression. In The Eye and the Hand, George Herbert emphasizes the illusory in art and confronts the instinctive sense: one sees the draped cloth in an utterly rigid medium; fragile glass and mirror abutted against enduring substance; but most of all there is the 'sleight of eye' which is first and most likely to identify the long platter on the shelf-top... and which only upon (literal) reflection equates it with the arm appearing in the mirror below. This approach also characterizes George's other two "Shadow Still Lifes": Light, Reflection, Space #2 (1997-98) and In The Shadow of a Vertical (1997). There is the sculptor's hand, the viewer's eye -- what slips in between is art.
As mentioned, "Shadow Portraits/Still Life Sculptures" is well curated. The placement and orientation of the work highlights the play of carved relief and recessed flows of mass, as well as the integral and impressive dimensionality of the pieces. Herbert George's sculpture leaves a powerful impression of an instinctive, free visual inspiration disciplined by intense concentration and insight: a wisdom about stone, and a wisdom of hand and eye. One perceives change and flux within the stillness of object; the fleeting impress of light and shadow about the marble; shadow and object meld. This is truly significant work.
A catalogue has been issued: 32 pages in soft wrap-around cover, with excerpts from the artist's own notebooks as well as quotations he has gathered from others. This well-designed chapbook offers a useful and stimulating insight into the artist's observations and intents, and includes illustrations of the works in this showing together with a checklist. Herbert George currently teaches sculpture at the University of Chicago.
"Shadow Portraits/Still Life Sculptures," an exhibition of sculpture by Herbert George will be on exhibit through July 8, 2000 at Fassbender Gallery, 835 West Washington in Chicago's West Loop Gate Gallery District. Telephone: 312/ 666-4302
--G. Jurek Polanski