Life-Size Nudes, Slumping but Self-Possessed

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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