Studio visits are always fun. We see new work and learn about the artist's way of working. To visit one of history's greatest sculptors and watch him in action seems like a fantasy, but a recent exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago took us as close as we will ever get to the Baroque genius Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680).
Bernini at work
Like other master sculptors of his time, Bernini made small (12-18 in. high) wax or baked terra-cotta models of commissioned works, known as bozzetti, to show to patrons. Bernini's bozzetti, which bear the marks his fingers made as he shaped and carved the clay, embody his ideas in their rawest, most immediate form. Often, the bozzetto was the last thing that Bernini actually touched. Once a design was approved, assistants carved the marble sculpture under his supervision.
Bozzetti were not considered particularly important. Most of them disappeared, and those we have are often damaged. Fortunately for us today, a Venetian-born art collector named Filippo Farsetti (1704-74) began collecting bozzetti in the 1750s as part of his (unfulfilled) hopes to establish an art academy. After 1800 the collection was sold to Russian Tsar Pavel Petrovich (Paul I) and it eventually became part of the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg. There the bozzetti remained out of sight until Russia opened up after the fall of the Communist empire.
This spring, the Art Institute of Chicago exhibited 35 bozzetti -- eleven by Bernini and the remainder by lesser-known Baroque sculptors. Called "From the Sculptor's Hand: Italian Baroque Terracottas from the State Hermitage Museum," the exhibition subsequently appeared at the Philadelphia Museum.
This is simply a thrilling show -- no other adjective will do.
Roughly two-thirds of Bernini's bozzetti are on Biblical themes (David; The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa). The remainder are Greco-Roman or historical (Tritons Holding Dolphins; Constantine the Great). Bernini dramatically poses his subjects. We see David as he prepares to hurl the stone at Goliath. The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa is a study of orgasmic drapery, contrasting the restless movement of the Saint's dress with the delicate, painterly folds of the angel's garment.
Next to the model of Saint Teresa at the Art Institute was a large photograph of the completed sculpture in the Coronaro Chapel in Rome. A comparison of the bozzetto to the photograph elucidates how Bernini revised his work. He improved Saint Teresa by lifting her body toward heaven and -- in a master stroke -- making her bare foot dangle in abandon.
When he placed Saint Teresa in the Coronaro Chapel, Bernini surrounded it with polychrome decoration -- a multi-level depiction of heaven. Gilded brass bars, which suggest the rays of the sun, are affixed on the wall behind the piece. Saint Teresa could be called one of the first installation sculptures in art history.
When Bernini sculpted Constantine the Great, people saw Constantine as a hero whose life should serve as an example to everyone. "Heroic Painting," a touring exhibition of large-scale realistic paintings by several contemporary artists demonstrates that heroes aren't what they used to be. Organized by Susan Lubowsky, executive director of the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art in Winston-Salem, N.C., the show brought works by Bo Bartlett, Vincent Desiderio, Walton Ford, Lawrence Gipe, Julie Heffernan, Komar and Melamid, and Mark Tansey to the Chicago Cultural Center, Feb. 3-Apr. 21, 1998.
Most of the artists in "Heroic Painting" mock the heroic. Their works resort to cleverness or political posturing. Two exceptions are Bartlett and Desiderio, who apply 19th-century academic methods to contemporary issues and scenes, usually with a touch of cryptic allegory.
Bartlett's Hiroshima (1994) -- 17.5 feet long by 11.5 feet high -- is a painting of innocence and expectation. A Japanese boy holding a paper goldfish on a long stick stands in a farm field looking out at the viewer. Next to him are two women, one who gazes at the horizon and another who bends over as she works. In the distance, we see farm laborers and a city. The time is mid-morning and nobody knows just what is about to happen.
Civil War (1994-1995) is a contemporary Pietà. Seated in front of a small pile of snow, a Caucasian woman in a white gown cradles a dead, black Union soldier in her arms just as Mary held Christ. The pair is reflected in a pool of water. In the foreground lies a corpse. Behind the couple, a Confederate wife struggles to save her wounded husband. This painting suggests that everyone lost in the Civil War -- and that African Americans were its greatest victims.
Civil War is a heroic painting for our time. It combines war and faith -- two prevalent themes in art -- with race, a perennial issue in the United States. Both Civil War and Hiroshima are subjects that seem to demand treatment on a heroic scale.
Painterly tour de force
Vincent Desiderio's masters are Courbet and Gericault. Desiderio's The Progress of Self Love, an oil-on-canvas triptych from 1990, is a painterly tour de force whose meaning has been widely debated.
The left panel pictures a crime scene with a female model on the floor, possibly murdered. A medical practitioner puts his ear to her chest, a policeman presumably gathers evidence, and a strait-jacketed male (artist?) on the sofa is being questioned by a man with a notebook. The center panel shows a military scene (World War Two?) with dead and wounded soldiers lying in a trench while others above them charge the enemy. The right panel shows the half-rotted carcass of a white whale (Moby Dick?) lying in an ocean grotto while men in a boat drift by on the surface.
After this point, "Heroic Painting" goes downhill in a hurry. We get Mark Tansey's one-liners that ridicule the Guggenheim Museum and deconstructionist literary critics, and Komar and Melamid's parodies of Socialist Realism. Walton Ford's work is downright annoying. This artist, who paints in a faked-up 19th-century American naïve style, presents history "from below" -- told in terms of its victims, real or alleged.
Ford's John James Audubon -- The Head Full of Symmetry and Beauty (1991) shows the naturalist artist on a boat in the middle of a river completely absorbed in drawing a bison's head. Audubon ignores the other passengers who amuse themselves by slaughtering bison as they swim across the river. Presumably, we are to conclude from this that Audubon was indifferent to the sufferings of wild animals -- unlike the virtuous Mr. Ford. Another American hero bites the dust.
Audubon could hardly have painted animals without killing them first, which is exactly what he did. (Has Mr. Ford ever tried to follow a warbler as it hops around in a tree?) By sacrificing some wildlife in the days before endangered species, Audubon greatly expanded our knowledge of natural history. His books, paintings, and engravings have inspired millions to love and cherish nature.
Does not know when to stop
Two Chicago artists -- Kerry James Marshall and Thomas Skomski -- had major exhibitions in late spring. Marshall's "Mementos" was up at the Renaissance Society, a gallery space on the University of Chicago campus, from May 6 to June 28. "Walking on the Bottom of the Ocean," Skomski's installation, filled the Northern Illinois University Art Museum Gallery in Chicago from May 1 to June 6. The shows -- and artists -- could hardly be less alike.
In recent years, Marshall, a black painter, has exhibited his work at the Whitney Biennial, the Art Institute of Chicago, Documenta and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago. A professor of art at the University of Illinois, Marshall recently received a "genius grant" from the MacArthur Foundation.
According to the Renaissance Society, "Mementos" is "a requiem to the 1960s, a decade synonymous with the Civil Rights Movement." The artist uses "the genre of history painting to reread the legacy of the Civil Rights Movement and the whole of African-American history in relation to a very complex present." Marshall's installation is said to be "replete with an angelic pantheon of African-American cultural and political figures who died between 1959 and 1970."
In his paintings, Marshall communicates a sense of black otherness and displacement by unnaturally darkening the skins of his black subjects and posing them so they look out, often reproachfully, at the viewer. But this is really all that he does. The rest of his scenes are painted in a hodgepodge style and cluttered with distracting details that drain them of their potential intensity. Marshall is only a mediocre painter -- and painting is what he does best.
Along the tops of the paintings in "Mementos," (Souvenir I; Souvenir III; Souvenir IV), Marshall puts the faces or names of black men and women from history who died during the '60s. We get heroes of the Civil Rights Movement (Martin Luther King), martyrs (Medgar Evers), civil rights pioneers (W.E.B. DuBois), writers (Zora Neale Hurston), jazz musicians (John Coltrane), controversial political leaders (Malcolm X) and forgotten entertainers (Little Walter). The 20-odd people aren't necessarily part of the Civil Rights Movement -- DuBois, for instance, was active long before the '60s.
The exhibition also presents a range of other material, including two photographs of Martin Luther King and the Kennedy brothers; an incomprehensible video that is watched through peepholes in a large plastic enclosure; a sculptural construction that memorializes the victims of the Birmingham church bombing; a black power flag that lies on the floor like a giant doormat; slogans from black history ("Black Is Beautiful," "Burn, Baby, Burn" and more) stamped on paper and framed; and oversized stamps that may have been used to print the slogans. Marshall does not know where to stop. Instead of making a coherent statement, he just fills a room with junk.
"Walking on the Bottom of the Ocean"
Using the simplest of materials -- light, water, expanded steel sheet, fabric and wire -- Thomas Skomski creates sculptural assemblages that work on our subconscious. "My materials are almost mundane," he says. "They're a means to an end."
"Walking on the Bottom of the Ocean," Skomski's new installation, consists of two works that fill a large, darkened gallery. Popeye is a cage made of rusty steel. At its center is a large hollow steel pipe held in tension off the ground by chains attached at the top and bottom of the cage. A spotlight, suspended above Popeye at a slight angle, illuminates the cage and casts complex shadows on the floor that seem to dissolve the physical borders of the piece. As we approach, we step on these shadows and are drawn into the piece.
"People must look carefully at my sculpture and think about it," the artist says. "The work is contemplative. It doesn't reveal itself all at once, but it will communicate if you give it time." It helps to know that Skomski practices Zen.
Untitled is a 15-foot-square space defined by four walls of sheer bluish fabric. Within this space are a large fabric cube and a smaller fabric rectangle held up with wire frames. Above these fabric boxes are two rectangular Lucite boxes containing water. Electric motors rock the boxes back and forth while blue lights attached to the rafters shine through the water, creating wave-like shadows throughout the space.
Using the fabric cube and rectangle to activate the space, and blue light and fabric to create a cool atmosphere, Skomski produces a meditative piece that is very much alive. To get such seemingly effortless effects, the artist chooses materials with the utmost of care, and spends weeks experimenting with them.
What does it mean? Skomski does not see "an advantage in explaining a work of art." His relationship to his work is "rooted in the notion that art is capable of breaking the bounds of ego consciousness," he says.
"I work like a spy," the artist states, "trying to let myself see something that I won't let myself see. It's like walking on the bottom of the ocean -- you do it very slowly, with a great deal of effort."
VICTOR CASSIDY is an art journalist based in Chicago.