Galleries

Life-Size Nudes, Slumping but Self-Possessed

by John Goodrich on August 4, 2014

Bruce Gagnier at John Davis, installation view (all images courtesy John Davis Gallery)

Bruce Gagnier at John Davis, installation view (all images courtesy John Davis Gallery)

HUDSON, N.Y. — Bruce Gagnier’s life-size figure sculptures have been popping up everywhere this past year: at Lori Bookstein Fine Art, the National Academy Museum, the American Academy of Arts and Letters, John Davis Gallery in Hudson, NY. And they’ve impressed each time; despite their clumped surfaces, slumping poses, and disproportional limbs, they possess a kind of scourged dignity. Physically blighted, Gagnier’s figures seem paradoxically uplifted — or at least resolutely self-possessed — in spirit.

Bruce Gagnier, "Touching the Neck" (2010–14), acrylic on linen, 72 x 36 in (click to enlarge)

Bruce Gagnier, “Touching the Neck” (2010–14), acrylic on linen, 72 x 36 in (click to enlarge)

An exhibition currently in John Davis’s carriage house space reveals another side of the sculptor. Twelve of Gagnier’s paintings, five-to-six feet in height, explore the pictorial counterpart to his sculptures. Each depicts a single nude (all but one standing) in dark, simple spaces. Built up from many feathered layers of paint — dates reveal that all have been reworked over a period of years, some more than a decade — the figures pulse with subtly atmospheric color and supple contours that course from head to toe.

The motif of a lone figure in a dark, vertical format brings to mind certain paintings by Dürer and Lucas Cranach, and Gagnier’s fluency of modeling and atmosphere leave no doubt about his awareness of such precedents.  Like his sculptures, however, these paintings overturn every tradition of the ideal. The poses are inelegant, sometimes cryptically awkward; limbs are distended or compressed; details made eccentric, so that feet may be swollen, and eyes and nipples turned into eerie, target-like concentric circles. Some of Gagnier’s subjects feel like deer fixed by the glare of headlights — startled and a little discomfited to be the focus of his willful attentions. In others cases, the warmth of empathy shows through, for instance in the half-smile of the quietly radiant “Touching the Neck” (2010–14) and in the vulnerable figure of “Standing” (2010–12), in which a distant floor line accents the loneliness of a deep, dim space.

Bruce Gagnier, "Arm behind the Head/Male" (2010–14), acrylic on linen, 72 x 36 in (click to enlarge)

Bruce Gagnier, “Arm behind the Head/Male” (2010–14), acrylic on linen, 72 x 36 in (click to enlarge)

At times Gagnier appears to tussle more with styles of traditional painting than with its internal compositional tensions. As with his figure sculptures, the paintings tend to set small, evocative articulations within broadly conceived poses; they coalesce through vigorous local modelings and a cohering attitude, rather than through a taut pacing of intervals. But then there’s a painting like “Arms behind the Head/Male” (2010–14), which unfolds with something like classical measure. Here, contrasting moments add one upon the other; pinks of flesh stand out particularly powerfully against a deep brown-green background, and coiled fingers at the figure’s hip pace the sweeping pose, from the foot — anchored by the articulations of each toe — to the culmination of the head with its strange target-eyes.  The frozen stare feels all the odder, peering as it does from cadenced rhythms.

One of Gagnier’s small sculptures of heads is on view in John Davis’s main building. (Inquire, and you may have the treat of seeing several more in storage.) These heads are my very favorite works by the artist. Molded physically, rather than suggested through two-dimensional renderings, the idiosyncrasies of the subjects register with a compact deliberateness. The most intensely individualized of his works, the heads possess a weighty, mysterious presence that transcends style and taste.

Bruce Gagnier, "Untitled (head)" (1990s), ceramic, 9.5 x 6.5 x 6 in

Bruce Gagnier, “Untitled (head)” (1990s), ceramic, 9.5 x 6.5 x 6 in

Bruce Gagnier continues at John Davis Gallery (362 ½ Warren Street, Hudson, New York) through August 10.

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  • jane lane

    looks like beast jesus

  • Jock Ireland

    Wonderful review!

    I totally disagree with you about the heads though. Really I
    just don’t understand most of what you say about the heads. I get that you like
    the heads. I like them too. I love them! But you seem to be saying the heads have
    qualities/virtues as sculpture (they’re “molded physically,” etc.) that are
    missing from the paintings. Are you really dismissing the paintings as “two-dimensional
    renderings”?

    Earlier in your review you say Bruce’s paintings “explore
    the pictorial counterpart to his sculptures.” You note that some of the
    paintings have been worked on over more than a decade. You got me thinking: Titian/Delacroix didn’t make sculpture. A bunch of great 20th century painters did:
    Matisse, Picasso, Giacometti. Recently in NYC we’ve seen shows of sculpture and
    paintings by Sterling Ruby/Lygia Clark. This back and forth between painting
    and sculpture is not a trivial matter. Bruce takes it seriously. And so do you.

    You continually bounce Bruce’s paintings off his sculpture. (That’s
    great for avid Hyperallergic readers like Roberta Smith and me, readers who
    have seen all the recent shows that Bruce’s work popped up in. I wonder though,
    is Jane Lane familiar with the sculpture? I really, REALLY like her comment: “looks
    like beast jesus.”) You bring in “the tradition of the ideal”—but almost in the
    same breath you’re talking about Durer and Cranach. Are Durer and Cranach
    really part of the tradition of the ideal? Do they not break with it in much
    the same way Bruce does? When you talk about Bruce’s “fluency of modeling and
    atmosphere,” his “awareness of precedents”—what are you saying? Maybe you’re
    saying Bruce is a very sophisticated painter. I agree, but it’s NOT Bruce’s “sophistication”
    that strikes me first when I look at the paintings. Then you say Bruce “appears
    to tussle more with styles of traditional painting than with its internal
    compositional tensions.” I’m lost. I see a very real engagement with “internal
    compositional tensions,” with where the figures stand, with how they relate to
    the picture plane. The “tussle with styles” is pretty fierce it seems to me.
    Bruce can’t get anything to work. He’s not happy about that, but he keeps
    trying.

    So there: maybe I “disagree” with everything you say. (Whatever
    “disagree” means.) I still think your review is wonderful, sensitive,
    intelligent, brave, etc. Bruce’s work is very hard to talk about. It “looks
    like beast jesus” as Jane Lane says. It’s extraordinarily beautiful at the same
    time. I hope/I bet more people will talk about it because of your review.

  • Shirley Hazlett

    Idk…I’ve spent my life busting my butt trying to produce figure renderings with skill and depth, and teaching my students to do so…and this is what gets the art world’s attention? Gah! All right, enough whining…back to work I go.

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