Art

Figures of Steel that Embody Our Fears

Installation view of Antony Gormley's Construct at Sean Kelly Gallery, "Big Pluck (2016). All Photographs : Jason Wyche, courtesy: Sean Kelly, New York
Antony Gormley, “Big Pluck” (2016) (all photos by Jason Wyche, courtesy Sean Kelly, New York)

Antony Gormley has consistently plied a practice that’s about articulations and permutations of the human body, often fabricating his forms in materials that can withstand the vicissitudes of the natural environmental. In the UK, where he lives, he came to prominence in the late ’90s with his “Angel of the North” (1998), at the time the largest sculpture ever executed in Britain; installed in the town of Gateshead, the piece is a humanoid figure with wings measuring about 175 feet. Equally notorious is Gormley’s “Another Place” (1997), which consists of 100 cast-iron, life-size figures, each one modeled on the artist’s own body and weighing 1,433 pounds; they’re now spread along the shore of Crosby Beach, looking out to the sea.

Photography: Jason Wyche, New York
Installation view, ‘Antony Gormley: Construct’ at Sean Kelly Gallery, showing “Bridge” (1985) and “Scaffold” (2015)

The body still fascinates Gormley but, in his current show, as a kind of architecture to be reduced to its barest structural essence. The pieces in the exhibition, Construct, at Sean Kelly Gallery, constitute part of his Big Beamer series and are fashioned in blocks of steel. They’re constructed at a scale that’s one-and-a-half times life-size, and are said to represent a body in five moments of rest: from crouching to fully erect. When seen from a distance — say, the doorway to the gallery space, adjacent to the front desk — the works look like a pixelated version of the human figure, a 21st-century comment on the nature of the body in public today. To be recognizable in the current moment is in large part regarded as a state of vulnerability, susceptible to the will of other people. Though Gormley’s concerns are more about structure than culture, the Big Beamer figures nevertheless illustrate how anonymity, the calculated denial of consistent identification, is increasingly shaping our public interaction.

Installation view of Antony Gormley's Construct
Installation view, ‘Antony Gormley: Construct’ at Sean Kelly Gallery
Installation view of the main gallery
Installation view, ‘Antony Gormley: Construct’ at Sean Kelly Gallery

One understands, in seeing this show, that Gormley’s formal concerns are with the architectural essences of the body, what makes a body uniquely identifiable as such. This, to my mind, is more interesting than his previous, monumental work, which felt like the reduction of complex questions of duration, weight, presence, and translation to something like a slogan. (Though those monuments certainly increased tourism in the places where they were installed.) Still, this exhibition feels a little thin. The pieces “Bridge” (1985) and “Scaffold” (2015) are on view in another room, side by side, demonstrating the evolution of clarity regarding how much one might reduce the body to the barest minimum of structural signification and still retain that signification. Yet the work leaves me wanting more. Gormley has reduced the body to its barest constituent form; he has made it indomitable, compressed and expanded it to fill voids we didn’t know were there. Now he has also made it an allegory for our contemporary fears — a state that warrants further exploration.

Stretched Blockworks in the lower gallery
Two of Antony Gormley’s ‘Stretched Blockworks’ in the lower gallery at Sean Kelly

Antony Gormley: Construct continues at Sean Kelly Gallery (475 Tenth Avenue, Hell’s Kitchen, Manhattan) through July 29.

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