Much of the perplexity of modern art centers on the question of abstraction. It is not uncommon to overhear a museum-goer in a modern art gallery question the merits of an all-black monochrome painting or complain in front of a seemingly messy canvas, “My child could do that.”
Lost in these concerns, however, is the way in which many artists over the last half-century have explored the body and figuration in their work. “Go Figure!,” Cantor Arts Center’s new exhibition of modern and contemporary art, brings together more than 20 works by an international group of artists who have placed the figure at the center of their artistic practice since the 1950s. A handful of the works on display are variations of the familiar motif of an artistic modeled form, yet the majority of works explore the tension between abstraction and figuration. Either way, those weary of the abstract tendency of modern art can breathe a cultural sigh of relief for “Go Figure!”
Entering the show in Cantor’s second-floor Oshman Family Gallery, visitors first encounter Richard Stankiewicz’ 1955 “Urchin.” Initially, the work, made of steel and found objects, appears to be little more than a fused junk heap of industrial material. However, looking at “Urchin” through the lens of the exhibition’s figurative theme, the viewer sees the work transform before his or her eyes. Circular tubing knobs come into focus as eye sockets while steel rods come to represent four limbs. Once aware of the figurative quality of “Urchin,” anthropomorphic readings rush in. Can we see the sculpture as having a nose and a belly button and perhaps even being clothed? Suddenly, the previous heap of industrial materials becomes re-envisioned as a bodily presence – a mischievous street urchin made from reused materials.
The diverse variety of mediums represented within the exhibition is striking. Interspersed among works in more traditional media, including Appel’s painting and a bronze sculpture by Terry Allen, are works in blown glass by Martin Blank as well as wood by Sam Hernandez. In painted marble, Manuel Neri’s 1981 “Carriona Figure No. 1” interestingly calls to mind the mannequin figures by Benjamin Hersh ’10 on display in Wallenberg Hall. In these divergent views and media, we come to see the body in a variety of materials and forms.
Perhaps surprisingly, it is work in ceramics that has the strongest presence in “Go Figure!” Viola Frey’s glazed whiteware “Aquamarine Man” and Peter VandenBerge’s coupled stoneware sculptures provide a colorful ceramic twist to the exhibition. Cantor’s strong collection of works from the loosely associated Bay Area ceramic Funk movement shine in this display, highlighting the figurative quality that largely distinguished modern art practices on the West Coast.
One ceramic work in particular, Robert Arneson’s 1964 “His and Hers,” is the brashest and arguably most provocative piece of the exhibition. The work consists of two constructed toilets, one designated “his” and the other “hers.” A large phallus sits on the male-designated half of the piece while the toilet bowl of the female portion takes a vaginal form, topped with a set of breasts. The backs of the toilets complete the ensemble with twinned nude buttocks. Taken together, the pair of toilets can be read as a bizarre yet humorous take on sexual difference and its resulting implications for the bathroom setting.
“Go Figure!” loses a bit of steam as it continues into the H.L. Kwee Galleria and McMurtry Family Terrace. One is hard-pressed to see figuration in works by Willie Cole and Mel Edwards; instead, the abstract qualities overwhelm any figurative reading. Further, the placement of works by Robert Graham and Gérard Quenum, artists from different regions and generations, on the same platform with little explanation as to their pairing, leaves a bit to be desired.
That said, an effective educational feature of the exhibition that must be acknowledged is the use of video monitors in the space of the gallery. On these monitors, museum-goers can view clips of three artists’ studios (Blank, Frey and ceramicist Richard Shaw). Though the videos are a slight distraction from the works themselves, they provide a fascinating perspective on the studio-based practice that is so essential to these artists’ exploration of the figure.
“Go Figure!” runs alongside and in complement to Cantor’s permanent-collection display of modern and contemporary works. Only in concluding the exhibition and continuing into these galleries can the perspective afforded by “Go Figure!” be seen, drawing connections to well-known abstract works by Richard Diebenkorn, Isamu Noguchi and Tony Smith. In this sense, “Go Figure!” is a thought-provoking and much welcomed counterpoint to Cantor’s modern art collection.
“Go Figure!” is curated by Hilarie Faberman, Cantor Arts Center curator of modern and contemporary art. It runs through Aug. 5, 2012.