In 2016, in a interview with Christine Hughes and Donald Martineaw-Vega, this is what Bruce Gagnier said about his sculptures:
These people (sculptures) want to be classical, noble, good, brave, calm, etc., but they are something else. Their inner nature is in not in conformity with their circumstance. I’m always testing them with Roman and Greek forms, and when they get too close, it’s a real question for me whether I can accept it or not, and usually I can’t. There is a falseness. I have to move them into a kind of chaos again, which represents reality for me.
The tension between classicism and chaos, or order and disorder, is one of the many things that sets Gagnier’s art apart from figurative sculpture stretching back to Auguste Rodin, Camille Claudel, and Edgar Degas. Gagnier’s figures and heads reside in the space between those perceptions, never tilting fully into one or the other. It is this state of betweenness that animates every part of them.
You have to sit with Gagnier’s sculptures as well as walk around them, which is exactly what I did when I went to see the exhibition, Good Figure: Bruce Gagnier, Plaster Works from 2019 and 1983 at Thomas Park (August 21–September 22, 2019). There were 10 standing figures — the tallest, “I Don’t Know” (2010), is the only one that has been previously exhibited — along with eight heads and three paintings of single figures done in acrylic on linen.
The gallery is long and narrow. The smaller back area is set off from the front by a partial wall. After briefly looking at what was in the front of the gallery, I went to the back, where there is a sofa, and sat and looked at the seven heads lined up on a white table with metal legs.
Gagnier challenges many of the assumptions and conventions about sculpture that viewers might unwittingly take for granted — many observers have stated, for example, that his works don’t look finished. The figures look awkward in their poses and body shapes, while each head seems to embody a different state of being. Facial features feel as if they have yet to be defined, or are being overtaken by what Gagnier called chaos. Their flaws seem to emanate from their inner selves, which sounds hokey, but believe me when I say it isn’t.
When I was thinking about this, the term “proprioception,” of body recognition, came to mind. We easily understand facial recognition, which depends on memory storing key visual features that impart information to the beholder. Body recognition is different: it requires more than the visual. It depends on memory’s awareness of one’s limbs in relationship to each other and to the space they occupy. This sensation is different from both exteroreception, the perception of the exterior world, and interoception, the awareness of the activity of interior organs and the experience of physical pain.
At one point in his career, Gagnier worked on his forms from both the inside and outside, suggesting that he wanted to inhabit his figures, to become, in some metaphysical sense, one with their bodies. I think what viewers find unsettling about Gagnier’s work is their psychic nakedness. Rather than looking at his heads as portraits and in that regard, they are indeed “unfinished” — I began to think of them as how his subjects saw themselves. With that in mind, an entirely different set of emotional responses comes into play. For one, to look at their lumps and boil-like extrusions is to feel empathy; we see ourselves in them, which stirs our emotions further.
The other thought I had was that Gagnier has little to do with Giacometti, with whom he is most often compared. If anything, he is the heir to Medardo Rosso, the great Italian sculptor who lived in Paris from 1889 until the end of World War I. A contemporary of Auguste Rodin, he was inspired by his encounter with Impressionism and Post-Impressionism. Working in bronze, clay, and wax, Rosso devoted his art to the ephemeral play of light and shadow.
Gagnier’s plaster figures change over the course of a day. They are best seen in natural light, like the paintings of Robert Ryman. They are not quite life-size, which makes them appear distant from us, inhabitants of a parallel world but physically present in the one we occupy. There is something disconcerting about this paradox.
They are unaware of their contradictory pose. A figure turns at the waist, as if stretching her muscles. A man reaches out. Is he about embrace a loved one or push an intruder away, fly or jump?
Each figure comes across as unsettled, in a state of movement or hesitation or both. The skin and muscles and limbs don’t always add up into a neat package. One figure’s shoulder slumps down, as if dislocated or deformed. Knees nearly touch, collapsing under the body’s weight. Some figures seem to be wrapped in a shroud, unable to escape the burden of their bodies. And yet such an explicit evocation of death is not what Gagnier is trying to depict, and you know it. He is never that literal.
His figures’ awkwardness seems to be radiating from their interior. They are not comfortable with themselves, which is what makes them contemporary.
While Rosso distanced himself from the idealizing current running through figurative sculpture by depicting the impoverished, sick, and elderly, Gagnier never gets socially specific. His figures are nude. Their awkwardness can be endearing, as if they are learning to walk all over again. Some of seem stunned by their very existence.
This seems especially true of his paintings. The figures are figments of Gagnier’s imagination. They exist in a tonal world, at once pink, green, and gray. The figure in “Artie” (2019) rests his hand on his forehead, the arm making a V, with the elbow pointing outward. My guess is that he is somewhere between teenager and adult. You have the feeling that he is thinking: “What the hell is going on?”
He is not interested in resemblance or signature style. He is interested in our interior states, how our bodies reveal how we interact – however ill at ease – with reality. Look at the way a foot is raised and turned, or how the toes cling to the base. Look at the set of parallel scratch marks on a woman’s chest and you realize there is nothing literal about these works. Rather, a powerfully defiant current runs throughout Gagnier’s art.
The psychic nakedness we encounter in Gagnier’s work shares something with Maria Lassnig’s challenging self-portraits, which seldom gave a context or depicted a background because she was not interested in story or narrative.
We are not all the same but all of us have had phases of discomfort, disappointment, and moments of yearning. These and other states are what we encounter when we experience a Gagnier sculpture or painting. Transcendence — the stuff of classical art — by its very definition bypasses our self-consciousness. Gagnier does not want to sidestep anything.
Good Figure: Bruce Gagnier, Plaster Works from 2019 and 1983 continues at at Thomas Park Gallery (195 Chrystie Street, #403D, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through September 22.