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Judith Shea: Seven Characters on the Verge of a Revelation
200304. Wood and bronze, 62 x 16
x 13 in. © ruy sanchez blanco
Judith Shea, a notable
presence on the New York sculpture scene since the 1970s, seemed to have
unaccountably withdrawn from it some 10 years ago. Her last major work
to attract critical notice was an enigmatic equestrian sculpture carved
in wood, stained black, and, in September, 1994, sited on 59th Street,
just southeast of Central Park, where it had been strategically placed
behind another man-on-a-horse, Saint-Gaudenss 1903 gilded bronze
Civil War monument that bears the lofty appellation General Sherman Led
by Lady Victory. It took little for passersby to grasp that Sheas
sculpture was more than a thematic variation on its grand predecessor.
Titled The Other Monument, its rider was no conquering general but an
Following that acclaimed
public presentation, Shea resumed making gallery-scale works, increasingly
interested in exploring other approaches to figuration. She had the opportunity
to do so when she was awarded a fellowship by the American Academy in
Rome. Beginning her residency in fall 1994, she immersed herself in the
study of the Eternal Citys artistic past, in particular its High
Renaissance sculptures, filling her notebooks with innumerable drawings.
At night, in the library at the Academy, Id read about those
artists, particularly Bernini and Michelangelo. Being in my 40s then,
and with considerable experience as an artist, I wanted to know what it
took to do what they did. How were they able to continue for so long?
Longevity was certainly a factor. Both of them lived productive long lives.
There werent disruptions of the sort that would essentially get
them off track. Since the Church was the patron, the given
was that their sculptures had to be holy imagespopes or saints or
other religious figures, living or dead. But what interested me more than
that was what they were saying about themselves and their lives as artists
through their sculptures.
Shea says, With
Bernini, there was tremendous passion but also tremendous fun in his works.
Sometimes, even the passion is tongue-in-cheek. Really?
I asked her, Wheres the fun, for instance, in the carved marble
of a feverishly ecstatic Saint Teresa of Avila, her body about to be pierced
by a smiling angels gold-tipped arrow? Well, yes,
was her amused response, not everything was fun and games, and,
after all, that was dire martyrdom he was depicting. But I looked at all
his sculptures, not just the saints but also his mythological figures.
As an example of that masters all-stops-out approach to non-saintly
subject matter she cited the erotically charged abduction depicted in
Pluto and Persephone in Romes Borghese Gallery. What you have
with Bernini is this constant explosion. In the religious commissions,
he goes to the limit of martyrdom and to the limit of passion; in pieces
like the Persephone, he goes to the limit of aggression, to the limit
of sex. With Michelangelo, it was a very different set of emotions. Its
not fun. His sculpture is also passionate, but it has a much darker nature.
He didnt represent acts of martyrdom the way Bernini did. I think
on some level, he felt too much personal pain, and thats expressed
in his work. There is certainly high drama about itIm thinking
about The Dying Slavebut I wouldnt call it theatrical. What
I ended up feeling was that both artists were communicating, whether consciously
or unconsciously, their experience of life more than anything else.
Other Monument, 1994. Wood,
project for the Public Art Fund installed
at the Doris C. Freeman Plaza, New York.
Not long after her
Italian sojourn, and still thinking about new directions for her work,
she headed south to live and work for a while in Oaxaca. Mexico, she says,
had quite an impact on her: Youre driving in the desert, in
the middle of nowhere, and suddenly theres a church full of saint
figures, all of them newly dressed in handmade clothesand some with
real hair. Theres a little of that in Italy, but, there, the clothes
and hair are mostly carved. Mexican folk art, with its exaggerated
human forms and strong craft sensibility, had interested her well before
her stay in Oaxaca. While pursuing a fine arts degree at Parsons she was
in charge of display at the United Nations folk-art shop where, she says,
I got to know those objects in depth.
For all their overt
expressiveness, the polychrome saint figures she encountered in Mexico
were no great surprise, since she had more or less grown up with more
sedate versions of them. My early childhood was in middle-class
suburban Philadelphia, she points out. The first sculptures
I ever saw were not in museums but figures in churches. I was fascinated
by those statues and tried to figure out what they were saying and doing.
All that is in my work. Her parochial-school education, she concedes,
affected her view of things. While she regards herself as a freethinking,
liberal-minded artist for whom traditional religious values are secondary
to overarching social ones, she is nonetheless ineluctably drawn to the
mysteries and import of the Catholic Churchs iconography. Her ambivalence
is expressed in the tension-fraught images that composed her recent Statues
exhibition at the John Berggruen Gallery. (She chose statues
because for so long the term was one of denigration among art world cognoscenti.)
After a year in the San Francisco Bay area, where she took on a few sculpture
commissions, she came back to New York in the summer of 1997. She found
herself a new, light-filled studio in an industrial section of Long Island
City, with a spectacular view of the Queensborough Bridge. There, she
began making life-size sculptures of heads and bodies, some in wood, others
in clay. The heads, specific in their detail, had been foreshadowed a
few years earlier in a series of small works, some only a few inches high,
formed of clay and hardened in kitchen and toaster ovens. The idea, she
explains, was to teach herself to make accurate, descriptive portraits:
I carved some in beeswax that I bought in the markets in Oaxaca.
I took those little heads with me in a shopping bag wherever I went, carrying
them around from airport to airport.
Prior to her return
to New York, most of her single-figure sculptures were headless. Her best-known
earlier works were, in her words, clothes without figures in them.
Armless hollow dresses symbolized women, and voluminous overcoats
were male surrogates. Gradually, she says, I began filling the clothes
with people. For whatever reasonwhether sustained exposure
to Baroque figuration, in which facial expression was as important as
bodily gesture, or to the martyred Christs and lachrymose saints of Mexicoshe
decided to pursue a less distanced and more immediate reality. This turned
out to be an idiosyncratic form of portraiture, its descriptive detail
in inverse proportion to the abstraction that had characterized her figure
sculptures: with one important caveatthese portraits were of no
one in particular. They were of invented beings, heads in search of bodies.
Bronze, 76 x 41 x 32 in.
© ruy sanchez blanco
visits to Sheas studio, I could see how this new specificity
was becoming an increasingly important factor in how she dealt with the
human form. The place abounded with highly descriptive male and female
heads, some alone on work tables, others attached to necks and shoulders,
and still others joined to carved wooden bodies. In the midst of this
jumble was an imposing, larger-than-life-size standing male figure wearing
a long overcoat. Figure, overcoat, and flat, low base were modeled in
red wax. Introduced to me as St. Francis, he was the first of Sheas
depictions of well-known saints in the guise of ordinary people.
The face of this
sculpture, since named Urban Francis, tilts heavenward. It is as though
Sheas humble saint were hearing things denied to the rest of us.
When I asked how she had come up with so prosaic a figure to represent
so spiritual a being, she replied, My perception of Francis of Assisi
as an earthy, simple man was greatly affected by what I read in Nikos
Kazantzakiss book about him. The book was a starting point for my
interest in this character. While I was reading it on the subway one day,
I looked up, and there was a man in ragged clothes sitting across from
me. Suddenly I had the feeling that he could be Kazantzakiss saint.
He seemed to be in an altered state; his reality was not the same as anyone
elses around him. What Kazantzakis does in his books is to take
mythologized figures like St. Francis and bring them into real time. You
wonder, if this man lived on your block whether you would even go near
In addition to Urban
Francis, Shea showed two other sculptures with religious themes in the
exhibition. Each of their subjects, she maintains, is as prominent in
the public imagination as a major Hollywood celebrity. Mary Magdalen
and Joan of Arc are just as much household names today as Julia Roberts
and Elizabeth Taylor. Mary Magdalen is even more famous now, basically
because of the popularity of The Da Vinci Code, whose story focuses on
her as the companion of Christ. But I started work on my Magdalen Fragment
before I read the book. And, of course, every girl knows who Joan of Arc
was. You didnt have to grow up Catholic to be interested in her.
is a partial figure, extending from mid-thigh to head and formed of silvered
bronze. Hollow, like Sheas generic female figures of the 1970s,
she wears a thin, form-revealing, low-neckline shift. She is at once a
full-bodied, sensuous creature and a profoundly abject one. Highly defined
as her body is, her face is even more so, suggesting one of Berninis
vision-struck saints. She looks as transported as Urban Francis. Though
traditional depictions of the Magdalen focus on her long red hair, in
Sheas portrayal only scraggly wisps remain. It is as if, in her
anguish, Sheas Magdalen had violently pulled most of it out.
for Twain, 19992001.
Wood, bronze, hair, and silver leaf,
28 x 12.5 x 9 in.
Fragment, 200204. Bronze and hair, 38 x 12 x 9 in.
© ruy sanchez blanco
Far more serene in
demeanor is Sheas Joan, for Twain, named for Mark Twains book
about Joan of Arcs life as peasant girl, warrior, and defendant
in her trial for heresy, as recounted by a fictitious sympathetic chronicler.
Unlike Sheas portrait of the Magdalen, her Joan is a woman in mystical
rapture. Her mouth is slightly open, her eyes gaze into the far distance.
When I first saw this truncated bust in Sheas studio three years
ago, the cuirass bore a gleaming, silver-leaf fleur-de-lys, so bright
that light reflected from it across the room. She subsequently toned down
the silver-leaf surface, burnishing it with a torch so that it became
current sculptures began with religious themes, they are not the only
ones to project degrees of spirituality. Just as inward-looking are the
women depicted in two other sculptures, Cara and Nobodys Angel.
What is evident in these works is that the line between the spiritual
and the secular blurs easily in Sheas imagery. Cara, a composition
in the form of a traditional portrait bust, is, like others in the Shea
sisterhood, an amalgam of wood, bronze, and human hair. Her downward-looking
eyes are barely open. Her features include a high forehead, well-defined
cheekbones, an aquiline nose, and a small mouth. Her thick blond hair
is short and roughly cut. We have no idea who Cara is. The sculptures
title, dear in Italian, doesnt tell us much.
One of the first
sculptures Shea made after working her way through the saints was Nobodys
Angel, which, for all its stylistic similarities to the Magdalen and Joan,
portrays a woman decidedly of this world. In many ways it is an unresolved
work, combining slabs and chunks of wood cannibalized from sculptures
she had earlier abandoned. Some of its parts go back to 1990, when
I lived in the Berkshires, Shea recalls. I dragged huge logs
down from the mountain and cut them up. Nobodys Angels
torso is constructed of white pine and reddish fir. Her skirt, uneven
at the bottom, is formed of wide sections of wood. Her legs are thick,
roughly defined, and her feet are like pads.
19992002. Wood and hair, 22 x 9 x 9 in.
There are extremes
in this curiously doll-like creature. Her smooth face and left hand, both
in gleaming bronze, contrast sharply with the rough-hewn quality of the
sculptures lower half. Overall, Nobodys Angel is an unsettling
work. The subjects face is youthful and fresh and, at the same time,
frenzied and frazzledas improbable a composite of expression as
of materials. She looks both determined and anguished, Shea
says of her imperfectly fitted-together woman. Her right arm ends
in a clenched fist. Its as though she were saying, Im
not letting myself come apart. There is
a slightly crazed quality about this sculpture, which in my view makes
it all the more engaging. She is far from perfection and forever
incomplete, so who would want to claim her? Shea wryly observes.
Shes nobodys angel.
Its hard to
ignore the evidence that Sheas portrayals of women, saintly or otherwise,
are in many ways self-portraits. I suspect that this is also how she perceives
them. Maybe thats why she takes so much time with the details: which
head works best with which body; whether a figures hair should be
real, rope, or a synthetic material. Its hard to know which was
the first of her female figures, an emotionally volatile lot, because
she worked on them simultaneously, trying combinations of heads and bodies
until the character she wanted finally emerged. Commenting on their realistic
detail, she says, Making these pieces used so much that I know as
a womanplaying with the hair, painting the faces. Even though the
clothes are carved of wood, I knew how to make them from my training in
Quite apart stylistically
and emotionally from its wild-maned predecessors is the fifth female sculpture
in this group. Cryptically titled Icon, it is the embodiment of calm.
Its gleaming, polished bronze bald head is dotted with holes into which
Shea, at one stage, had intended to stuff tufts of hair. Its body was
carved from a single great timber that had an earlier life as a railroad
trestle. It still bears holes made by the huge spikes that joined it to
the trestles other beams. (It might be a stretch, but those perforations,
especially in the context of this exhibition, might be read as symbols
of saintly martyrdom.) The smoothly formed body of this single-armed personage
looks as if it had been wrapped, mummy-like, in a stiff garment. There
is, in fact, something vaguely Egyptian about Icon, whose face, impassive
except for a slight smile, adds to the aura of antiquitynot a great
surprise, since over the years Sheas sculptures have alluded to
Egyptian and classical deities.
1999, 1999. Bronze, 5 elements, 9 x 13 x 42 ft. View of work at
the Nelson-Atkins Museum, Kansas City, Missouri.
© ruy sanchez blanco
stylistic break between Icon, whose head and body are generalized, and
her more literal works, Shea says, Next to the female figures that
preceded it, maybe she does go off in a different direction. Her face
is clearly not that of a saint. Its benevolent but not spiritual.
I like the fact that they have hair and she doesnt. And, as
if to emphasize Icons secular down-to-earth nature, she adds, I
also like the fact that her head is fastened to her body with visible
screws. (More evidence of martyrdom?)
secular presence is Clarion, the dreadlocked head of a black man. At one
point, this character was destined for a loftier calling. During her early
ponderings of saintly iconography for our times, Shea had seriously considered
casting this head in the role of John the Baptist. Though she did not
assign him that fateful duty, this massive head nonetheless has biblical
potential. Its subject, I suggested to an amused Shea, could easily qualify
as Goliath, given his larger-than-life size, but she had other plans for
him. She was demoting him from saint to prophet, or even to preacherMaybe
a herald of social change, she says. Clarions scraggly real
hair and patch of beard below his lower lipa soul patch,
in todays parlanceare Sheas subversive take on the aristocratic
portrait busts she had seen in such profusion in French and Italian palaces.
She liked the idea of using that convention to depict a black man. In
a sense, Clarion is an updated version of the head of the man on horseback
in The Other Monument.
4.5 x 2.4 x 3.5 in.
2.5 x 1.5 x 2.25 in.
What is the connection,
I asked Shea, between these new works and her earlier generic figures,
which bordered on pure abstraction? They are a continuation of them,
she maintained, seeing no disjunction between past and present. When
I think about my first works, which were made of cloth and looked like
clothes installed flat on the wall, I realize that even then I was looking
for characters, for personae, really, to occupy them. I used clothes as
stand-ins for people. They were like types, maybe even stereotypes. I
refined those clothing forms down to the overcoat and the dress, which,
as the work grew three-dimensional, became the leading man and the leading
lady. As her work became more volumetric, it also gained in emotional
depth. When I asked if she ever felt that something might be lost were
she to continue her pursuit of detailed description, her unhesitant response
was: Not at all. For me, what Im doing now is a continuation
of what Ive always tried to doto make sculptures, whether
they are extremely formal or obsessively descriptive, that will express
Since retiring as director of the Walker Art Center, Martin Friedman has
lived in New York. His book on Chuck Close will be published next year.
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