Art Review Archives:
Oskar Friedl Gallery
Herbert George's plastic forms of positive and negative space play with one's perceptions of solidity. George handles his white Vermont marble like a Moebius strip, forms turning inside out, the irrecognizable resolving into the recognizable. This is definitely sculpture to be circled, to be enjoyed from all angles, even, it must be said, crouching or on tiptoe: a combination of solid objects and shaped space that draws the viewer into a mysterious, mutable reality. Four works are on exhibition at Oskar Friedl Gallery, and on the one hand, one could wish for more of George's excellent sculpture. On the other, the presentation of these singular four leads the viewer to linger, to reflect on details that might be bypassed in a busier exhibition. Set upon pedestals, highlit in pools of light against the subdued gray of the gallery, this is a presentation which sets off well the contemplative and curious aura of these manipulations of form and shape.
Shadow Portrait of Mondrian (Vermont marble: 2003) presents at first as an oddly-shaped dollop of stone perched on a sleek birchwood stand. Familiar forms resolve as one circles, variously positive or negative as volumes. In many ways this is how we perceive faces -- as glimpsed-at facets, a cheek, an eye, now far, now near: an accretion of impressions that we assemble to form an image of the individual. Distributing these features around all sides of the stone, George pushes one's perceptions beyond the glimpse, the 'scan' in which one recognizes a stereotypical human face, mentally logs it and looks away. "For me," the artist notes,
Shadow Portrait of Mondrian plays with form and line, incorporating various types of representation. One nose of this dual portrait is a rounded, sculpted, three dimensional form; the other is a receding, negative space. The eye is a swift sketch, three curved crescents picking up an eye as one might draw it in a notebook, or in the carving of a woodcut or engraving. The forms merge fluidly into one another: a nose becomes the side of an ear, a blank expanse resolves into an eye, and one feels the curiosity of discovery as this apparently abstract object with its elegant solidity resolves into a shifting portrait that piques the imagination.
This is part of the artist's intent: that the sculpture should not simply be meant to be seen from a single view, that moving around to the side or back not simply show one the side or back of the intended object, but should, rather, reveal a totally different aspect of the subject. The result is a shapeshifting art with a particular unity of form. Shadow Portrait of Mondrian's Pipe & Glasses (2002: marble) is based on a photograph the artist took of articles in a reconstruction of Mondrian's studio. The pipe and its repository bowl rise on a sensuously organic column whose abraded texture and wavy scorings suggest a cloud of smoke. Their bold, three-dimensional carving contrasts with the glasses, which are represented as a negative volume, an outline of spectacle-loops and earpieces carved into the base of the stone. A wormhole of an aperture opens through one of them, letting through glimpses of the floor beneath. Part still life, part portrait, there is a pleasing wholeness of form and texture.
'Shadow', the artist has noted, is integral to sculpture, and draws as well on a long and varied tradition -- from the dancing cave-wall shadows of Plato's Republic to the tale of a man who sells his shadow to the Devil. But 'shadow' has its dark side as well. It carries associations of obscurity, unreality, even threat, danger, and death.
And it is, perhaps, this shadow-soul that informs the largest and most moving work of the four, Shadow Portrait of a Palestinian Girl. It is a vision of turmoil, its eviscerated wedge-shape and unstable poise drawing in a host of disquieting associations. Fitful scoring and the forward cant of the piece suggests the instability of the Middle East, and unexpectedly from this abstract detail springs a human relic, an individual presence: around one side is an arm and a hand, or more properly, a hand-shape, represented in negative. Its wrapped-about grasp draws in ideas of terrorized, futile self-protection; its reverse hollow of hand-shape carries suggestions of absence, loss, vanishment, apocalypse. Here, both expressive abstraction and touches of figurative detail combine well to create a work that is empathetic and disturbing.
The exhibition includes a set of twelve of the preparatory maquettes for this work, small models done in clay, and the wonder is in the variety of the artist's developing visions, and the degree of translation employed to bring the image to its final state: no two are alike. The maquettes provide clues to George's development of his intended form: each one resembles a more traditional sculpture, and looking at them, one sees the many sculptures which he has synthesized into a single piece in the final work.
Herbert George succeeds in creating an art of multiple visions, one that goes beyond simply recreating the three-dimensional in stone. These four 'shadow portraits' at Oskar Friedl Gallery offer refreshing exercises in solid geometry and spatial volumes, uniquely applied in terms of portraiture. They are well worth a special trip.
--Katherine Rook Lieber
Editorial Note: The artist is quoted from the June 2000 catalogue Herbert George: Shadow Portraits/Still Life Sculptures, issued by Fassbender Gallery.