What does evil look like? The Prince of Darkness takes many forms in Christian iconography; representing him in such a fabulous array of guises must have been a welcome break in the routine for Renaissance painters hired to depict saints and sinners, prophets and patrons. We surmise from Demons, on view at Elizabeth Harris Gallery through December 3, that Mary Carlson has some favorites.
The show includes eighteen recent works in glazed porcelain, the largest of which is seven inches high. They are derived from Old Master paintings and prints, about half of them from Giotto’s frescos for the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua (dedicated in 1306). In only two of Carlson’s works, the archfiend appears solo; typically, he is depicted in conflict with a human character. One of the many wonderful things about this exhibition is the artist’s extended meditation on the relationship between painting and sculpture. Another is the transformation she effects by plucking these confrontations from the human/supernatural matrix of their source, and isolating them on a purpose-built array of oversized, whitewashed wood pedestals.
In “Judas (after Giotto)” (2015), the figure of Judas is wrapped in his yellow robe and clutches the pendulous moneybag the chief priests have just pressed on him. (Does its dangling weight foreshadow Judas’ suicide by hanging?) The demon, in this case, is an unsettling combination of bat, rat and wolf, clutching Judas’s upper arm with his claw. In Giotto, the horrid creature’s hindquarters are cropped out of the frame, leaving Carlson to invent a phallic tail that echoes the angled thrust of his horns.
This transformation from pictorial to sculptural space is both a reasonable thing to do with Giotto’s frescos, and unexpected; the result is entirely beguiling. Giotto’s great technical innovation, it is generally thought, was to render figures, architecture and other parts of the composition as believable masses in space. (From “Giotto and Florentine Humanism” by Frank Jewett Mather, Jr: “If you convince the eye of the tangibility of your objects, the mind will supply elbow room and air to breathe.”) Carlson’s porcelain versions might be an homage to the Florentine master’s break with the flat Byzantine style through his stunning and revolutionary illusion of mass.
Carlson’s method further complicates things by isolating the contact between human and demon. Contrary to the essence of Giotto’s (again, innovative) approach to the narrative dimension of figure groupings, which are bound together by the gestures and facial expressions of the players, Carlson eliminates those broader interpersonal contexts in favor of one-on-one matchups. Then as now, it’s hard to say which side is winning; in any case, Carlson’s essentializing of the drama on a diminutive scale has a strange psychological dynamic — both tender and intense.
A lot of Carlson’s subjects come from the Chapel’s spectacular Last Judgment, which, naturally, is swarming with satanic agents and understudies. “Swallow (after Giotto)” (2015), at a mere 1¾ by 6 by 1½ inches, isolates the narrow-eyed, hairy green head of the enormous monster that rampages through Giotto’s fire and brimstone, with the half-devoured body of one of the damned still protruding from its mouth. One of the few pieces to include a contextualizing reference to landscape, “Push Down (after Giotto)” (2015) establishes the (apparently negotiable) ground plane with a flat bit of terra not-so-firma, into which a mush-faced little brute shoves yet another hapless soul, headfirst.
“Shoulder Demon (after Giotto)” (2015) features a sturdy young woman extending her left arm as she strides forward; at her side is a seahorse-like serpent that, frankly, doesn’t seem to be tormenting her terribly (though I’m sure it could be quite annoying). In situ, she is half of a damned couple menaced by three nasty, hairy thugs, in the vicinity of hanging corpses (including that of Judas) and other atrocities. I couldn’t identify the iconography — no doubt scholars have theories about it — but I wonder if the pair is the adulterous Paulo and Francesca da Rimini, whom Giotto’s compatriot Dante depicted as doomed to keep each other’s eternal company in the second circle of the Inferno.
Dante suggests that Francesca’s sin, falling for the beautiful Paulo while enduring a politically motivated marriage to his brother, wasn’t all that hateful: “Alas! / Sweet thoughts how many, and desire how great, / Brought down these twain unto the dolorous pass?”(Canto V, Sayers translation.) In Carlson’s hands, the demon looking over Francesca’s shoulder seems more in the role of a belated chaperone.
The greatest liberty with source material is probably taken in “Shame (after Masaccio)” (2014). Pushing the show’s essentializing conceit to its limit, Carlson conflates into a single (half-length) figure the searing remorse and humiliation of Adam and Eve seen in the Expulsion of Masaccio (1425) in the Brancacci Chapel in Florence. Carlson nails the precise gesture of Adam burying his face in his hands, overwhelmed by the enormity of his behavior, while endowing the figure with Eve’s long, blond tresses and pale pink complexion. (No demon here, but we know the lead-up.) Like the rest of the work in this show, “Shame” is painterly, if works in clay may be described that way; the contours seem a bit blurry somehow, as if composed of light rather than matter, and the artist’s palette of glazes is soft and melting.
“Margaret of Antioch (western)” (2016) is one of the exhibition’s five depictions of this sainted martyr. Here she prepares to stride forth from her victory over the serpent that swallowed her whole (long story), and from which she escaped by irritating its innards with the crucifix she carried in her hand until it expelled her. In the Orthodox version of the story, the shapeshifting Mephistopheles appears as an incubus, and Margaret’s triumph over evil is rather more proactive, as she swiftly bludgeons him into submission with a hammer: see “Margaret of Antioch (eastern)” (2016). Devilish costumes are a staple of Halloween, of course, but it would be awesome if little girls went trick-or-treating as Margaret of Antioch.
For the Scrovegni Chapel, Giotto also executed allegorical figures representing the seven deadly sins, painting them to resemble sculpture in carved marble. Carlson re-materializes Envy twice, as a full figure and a portrait bust. In the full figure, “Envy (after Giotto)” (2015), she retains the Florentine master’s ring of all-consuming fire encircling the frumpy, robed figure as she raises her right hand, grasping at nothing and everything while clutching her daintily decorated moneybag (money being on everyone’s mind in the newly prosperous Trecento) in her left. The bust, “Envy (after Giotto)” (2016) gives us a close-up of her hideous head, which is surmounted by a coiling serpent that penetrates the back of her skull and emerges from her distended mouth to stare her in the face. Her ears are enormous.
Remarkable, too, is “Sleeping Joachim” (2015), a three-inch high evocation of corporeal actuality. The figure is derived from Giotto’s “The Dream of Joachim,” in which the sainted father of the Virgin has a vision of an angel announcing the immanent pregnancy of his wife, Anne. (Though not Biblical, Joachim and Anne were popular subjects for religious art until the Council of Trent banned apocryphal stories from artists’ repertoires.) Seated on the ground, Joachim nestles his head in the crook of his elbow, which he supports on his right knee. In both Giotto and Carlson’s versions, this complex posture can readily be sensed beneath Joachim’s blankets. Luciferless, this work is presented a bit apart from the rest — as is “Shame” — drawing attention to the exhibition’s exacting design.
Quoting from Old Master paintings is nothing new, but it is a particular kind of appropriation that literalizes the illusionism of painting, fleshing out two-dimensional images and granting them physical space. The sculptor works from the single angle of view provided by the painting (to disregard, for the sake of this argument, Picasso’s cubist guitars and glasses of absinthe) and surmises or invents the rest of the information. As the viewer moves away from the original viewpoint, the bond between the source painting and the derived sculpture necessarily loosens.
Carlson’s installation controls the viewer’s movement, so that our primary view is essentially that of the paintings. In contrast, “Great Deeds Against the Dead” (1994) by Jake and Dinos Chapman — which uses life-size mannequins to materialize a particularly gruesome etching from Goya’s “Disasters of War” portfolio (1810-20) — can be seen from all sides. It is commensurately less about the Goya, and more about the spectacle of recreating the Goya. In the 1960s, Picasso himself riffed on figures from Edouard Manet’s “Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe” (1863), working with fabricators on an environmentally-scaled tribute that, in 1966, was installed on the grounds of the Moderna Museet in Stockholm. Walking among the four enormous concrete figures, viewers are privy not only to their unseen aspects, but also to Picasso’s manipulation of the painting’s pictorial space.
And then there is Eve Sussman’s astonishing “89 Seconds at Alcázar” (2004), a video in which Velazquez’s “Las Meninas” (1656) is exploded temporally as well as spatially. Sussman imagines, in a single shot, the ten minutes or so that surround the instant captured by Velazquez in paint. She faithfully recreates that central, predetermined tableau, and invents the relevant space in time. In its understated, winningly modest way, Carlson’s project participates in this quirky practice of pushing past painting’s inherent limitations.
Demons, which is something of a follow-up to Paradise, Carlson’s 2014 exhibition at this gallery, is an exciting development for artists working figuratively in clay. Sculptors such as Daisy Youngblood, Elise Siegel, Judy Fox and Alice Mackler are doing fabulous work in the medium. Its history is not “baggage” but a beautiful tradition these artists build on. Clay, much like paint, is alive and well.
Mary Carlson: Demons continues at Elizabeth Harris Gallery (529 West 20th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through December 3.