It’s not every day that a contemporary artist gets to show her work alongside that of a master. But from now through August 12, Rachel Kneebone is having her day.
Eight of the artist’s writhing porcelain sculptures are on view in the Brooklyn Museum’s Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art, alongside fifteen expressive bronzes by the grandfather of modern sculpture, Auguste Rodin. The pairing is neither as presumptuous nor as incongruous as it might sound. The exhibition highlights connections between the two artists without suggesting an equivalency, both through helpful wall text and a smart installation that lets viewers discover associations on their own.
The artworks are loosely arranged in a series of thematic groupings: “Repetition and Process,” “Expression and the Body,” “Mastery and Monumentality” and “Ecstasy and Damnation.” The most important of these — indeed, the one that could stand in for all of them — is “Expression and the Body.” The use of the human form as a tool for rendering emotion serves as a locus for this inter-artist dialogue.
Rodin pioneered modern sculpture by foregoing pristine, allegorical figures for fleshy, realistic ones. He created bronze people whose bodies manifest their situations and feelings, as with the six would-be martyrs depicted in “The Burghers of Calais,” each of whom stands alone, lost in distressed thought (two are included in the show). Even truncated torsos or stand-alone parts (for example, “Large Left Hand,” also in the exhibition) convey something deeper. “No part of the body was insignificant or trivial, for even the smallest of them was alive,” wrote poet Rainer Maria Rilke in his 1902 monograph on the artist. “Life, which appeared on faces with the clarity of a dial, easily read and full of signs of the times, was greater and more diffuse in bodies, more mysterious and more eternal.”
Kneebone is similarly concerned with using bodies to express something mysterious and eternal, and similarly unconcerned about their completeness. In fact, it’s impossible to find a full human figure in any of her sculptures here; instead, we get mostly lower halves, legs splayed, sliding and sprouting from vaginal and phallic forms. On the rare occasion that a recognizable torso appears, the ribs and breasts and other organs show through.
This overly explicit physicality and eroticism point to a divergence: for Rodin, who worked mostly on a lifelike scale, the body was the bearer of expression; for Kneebone, the body, now in miniature, has become a tool, a means of accumulating a feeling without directly showing it. She says, in a video on the Brooklyn Museum’s website, that she and Rodin “share [the practice] of making permanent an emotion that is always fleeting and is also sort of beyond language.” That’s true, however, the types of emotions they’re evoking are vastly different: Rodin’s are outsized but of this world; Kneebone’s are otherworldly.
This is most apparent in the exhibition’s second room, devoted to “Ecstasy and Damnation.” Here we see sculptures by Rodin for his never-completed “The Gates of Hell” alongside Kneebone’s largest work to date, “The Descent” (2008). The latter is a stunningly detailed pit measuring nearly five feet high and twelve across. Comprised of a series of rings descending to the center — as with “The Gates of Hell,” the inspiration came from Dante’s Inferno — it is populated by hundreds of figures, some lining the outer rim and the rest tumbling inside. These figures, made up of legs and genitalia-inspired torsos and entangled with vines and vegetation, fall everywhere, over each other and every which way. “The Descent” is a grotesque fantasy of bestial eroticism, an orgy in hell. Beside it, Rodin’s anguished figures look utterly human.
The strength of the contrast raises the somewhat ironic question of how Kneebone’s work stands on its own. It’s hard to know how much sexual delirium might be too much, or how her kinetic piles of limbs appear without the grounding of earthly bodies alongside them. But it may simply be a question of (dis)comfort: Kneebone uses the our own form to test the limits of what we consider human. Looking in the mirror — even a distorted one — is never easy.
Rachel Kneebone: Regarding Rodin is on view at the Brooklyn Museum ( Prospect Park, Brooklyn) until August 12.