Shortly after the plague had swept through 14th century western Europe, the Church began to exhibit a new style of sculpture—an unprecedented number of nudes, portraits, and of course the representation of the withered corpse as a new form of tomb monument, adorning altars, apses and naves. Death and his effects were often portrayed, and sculptural studies into the anatomy of the body progressed at a skill and speed extraordinary for this period. The corporal discoveries in artistry of the late gothic period in particular provided the foundations for figurative sculpture as we know it.
On arriving at Effigies, such a mythic past seems less confined to a purely archival role, and the disquieting late gothic attitude of the sacred and the profane resurface in this unlikely display. At the same time, it’s worth remembering that the majority of these works have been carved, moulded and cast in this age of bodily plastics: a period marked for its innovative surgery of nips and tucks, the compromise between dismemberment and perfection. And works by the likes of Louise Bourgeois, Francis Upritchard and David Altmejd masquerade their surgery executed at the hands of their creators.
So, transforming the pristine casement of the white cube gallery into a dark wunderkammer, Effigies gathers the work of 22 artists and exhibits them in rows regimented with the regularity of soldiers’ tombstones. Sparsely installed, and yet rich in both number and media, the discipline of the space and its unexpected orderliness is strangely disorientating given the licentiousness and ungoverned fantasy of the material. It’s like wandering through a museum at night, among abandoned and once-exuberant relics that seem suddenly vulnerable without their vitrine casing, naked in the intensity of the spotlight glare. Certainly, the spot-lighting and the solemn plinths, create an austerity posing as reverence that the works themselves attempt to undermine.
These mostly small sculptural exhibits have a propensity to see-saw between puerile amusement and abject horror in the manner of Hans Bellmer’s various ‘Poupée’. And yet individually they also evoke the strange character of something deformed, though perhaps not entirely debased. Klara Kristalova’s porcelain heads, despite titles like ‘Evil Ways’, 2007, don’t quite mature beyond that childish craft into fully-fledged vindictiveness, while Sean Landers’ ‘Weary Clown’, 2003, sits less comfortably between the impasse of child and adulthood.
The works rendered in precious metals—those of alchemic appeal like the 24 karat gold of Terence Koh’s double head, ‘The Golden Balls of My Youth’, 2007, for instance—start from a point of gaudiness and move towards the altogether more slippery state of holy relic. But nothing here is particularly sacred, however. Race is pimped out in Edward Lipski’s golden afro sculpture, ‘King III’, 2007; and gender is grotesquely inflated in Louise Bourgeois’ busty bronze ‘FEMME’, 2005.
Among such work it is hard to tell whether the profane, in it’s multifarious guises —Henry Darger’s infamous ‘Vivian Girls carrying Guns’ or George Condo’s gurning ‘Altar Boy’, 2005 are particularly noteworthy in this respect—is lessened by the military graveyard style of display, or whether this regimentation is the chosen platform for such profanity. But this rich seam of work delights in a certain gothic wretchedness, and while some might regard Effigies as an unfashionable passion for small figurative sculpture, others will find a provocative show of Breugel-esque world in the round.
Isla Leaver-Yap is MAP’s editor-at-large