Sunday, June 01, 2003

William Tucker: Something More Than the Body is Afoot

While Detweiller Visiting Artist at Lafayette College, William Tucker wrote a catalogue essay that begins When I was making my first abstract sculptures in the late 1950's, if there was an earlier master I neither respected nor understood, it was Rodin... .  By 1983 Tucker had moved away from the spare rigidity of industrial fabrication that characterized his work and which had dominated progressive sculpture one way or another for nearly seventy years, to return to hand modeling, plaster and bronze---the methods and materials common to Rodin and sculpture at the beginning of the Twentieth century.  Now, less than one month from the end of the century, Tucker finally goes head to head with Rodin in his most recent show of sculpture at the McKee Gallery. 

Of the seven sculptures Tucker is showing, one is a plaster torso, six are bronze heads.  Five of the bronzes are slightly over life-size, the sixth almost four feet tall.  The torso is gigantic, eight feet tall from shoulders to the tops of thighs.  Describing the work as heads and torso is deceptive, however.  Before the sculptures reveal themselves as figurative, the impression is of being in a hall of Earth and Planetary Sciences.  On the left, a massive, white, gypsum concretion.  To the right, a series of meteorites that range in color from light green and yellow, to pewter and blue, to a dark green black.  Some of the specimens are reminiscent of Chinese Scholar's Rocks, particularly those of Qilian and Ying limestone, but anyone who's held a meteorite knows the profound difference between a meteorite and a rock.  Meteorites possess a gravity, and a fluidity of surface that is unique.

With each of the sculptures there is a predominant aspect for the figurative to come into view.  From almost all others the heads maintain their base materiality.  Pomona is another story altogether.  No matter the turbulent conglomeration of plaster, once seen as torso it is hard to lose sight whatever the perspective.  It is a case of knowledge and perception, the way the acquisition of the former inexorably alters the latter.  This is common to all Tucker's work that oozes from the bluntness of material to the complexity of the representational.  With swelling belly and deeply arched back, Pomona twists to the left pulling her right breast upwards.  I once took an oath to Anita Ekberg, but this is the true goddess of sculpture.  As much as Pomona is directed outwards into the room, the heads seem focused on silent internal monologues.  Circling around The Good Soldier or Little Jeanne the forms evolve profile by profile from a landscape of hollows and mounds to a semblance, but only a semblance, of a nose, an eye, an ear, a mouth, each one coming in turn until a certain facial resolution crystallizes.  But it's hardly human, a face so disfigured that the nose is smashed to obliteration or torn off altogether, the mouth only a tear or gouge, and the whole covered by bony growths like those of John Merrick, the Elephant Man.  And then, as the circling continues, each devolves back into meteorite---land mass---plaster---bronze.  Of course it never was nose---ear---eye.  It was always material---bronze nose---plaster ear---clay eye.  At the same time we see the face, we are made to see sculpture and the deliberate manipulation of material and form.  Here is the sculptor at work as sculptor.  It is at these moments especially that the real talent of William Tucker is made plain.

As natural forms the heads are interesting.  As sculptural forms they are compelling.  As human forms they are grotesque and terrifying.  What brings the human physiognomy to such grotesquerie?  What moral or physical transgression?  What anguish?  The Gates of Hell never had such accursed residents.  According to Albert Elsen, The description Rodin once gave of the spiritual significance of Michelangelo's sculpture might also apply to his own:  "His sculpture expressed restless energy, the will to act without the hope of success - in fine, the martyrdom of the creature tormented by unrealizable aspirations".  The predicament Rodin has described is common to many artists, and from Michelangelo to Rodin and on to Tucker it gets progressively worse.  To want to work the figure, to want to work sculpture, after so many and so much come before can be a crushing thing.  The sculptures at McKee are Tucker's measured response.

Beyond this, each of the sculptures is a conversation with strong precursors.  Not just Rodin, but Matisse, and the Greeks.  Homage to Rodin (Bibi), the largest of the heads, is a good place to start.  Clearly addressed to Rodin, it is more specifically to Rodin's sculpture The Man with the Broken Nose for which Rodin's handyman Bibi modeled.  Rodin said he kept it in front of him for the rest of his life as a bench mark, and it's a sure bet that Tucker has too.  In Little Jeanne it may be the heads of Jean de Fiennes or Jean D'Aire from Rodin's The Burghers of Calais with which Tucker speaks, or possibly one of the busts from Matisse's series Jeannette, I-V

As is well recognized, Rodin is one of the progenitors of modern, and therefore post-modern, figurative art.  Some legacies we intend, others are unforeseen, the misshapen and misbegotten forms of good ideas gone bad.  Though even for Rodin the body of figurative sculpture had been sick for centuries, as represented by a great deal of current figurative work, preoccupations with the body and identity are made to seem the baby snapshots of the art world---carried around lovingly and brought out for viewing at every opportunity, but of little interest to any but the parents.  Tucker's work speaks not only to the commonality of human experience, but to profound materiality.  Unapologetically willing, without posturing or pretense or irony, to take on not only the sense, but also the physicality of the human body, Tucker makes the figure, and sculpture, vital.  Even when unrecognizable, the blunt inevitability of the body is felt.  To many of his younger contemporaries this is in the nature of the issuance of a challenge.  Against the cartoon he posits the human, against the virtual he places the material and the unfashionable notion of work.  Not only about the body, or about sculpture, Tucker also grapples with what it is to be an artist at this time in history.