Kent Fine Art | May 9 – June 28, 2014
Judith Shea’s new sculptures tread an unexpected and elegant tight rope. Initially we are drawn into their technical skill and physical presence. Then more slowly their inner emotional fire is revealed. The works are defiant yet elegant, fierce yet accepting and calm.
Each piece is a roughly life-size figure. There is one man, the rest are women—strong women—and it is here that Shea’s powers of observation and empathy take root. The three most iconic pieces are portraits of women sculptors: Elizabeth Catlett, Louise Bourgeois, and Marisol. Each full figure, fully dressed by the artist, confronts us with a direct gaze. The watchful eyes are accompanied by equally evocative hands. Each confront us with a tightly clenched fist, a political icon that here translates into survival, confidence, and guts. Marisol’s hands hold emblems of the sculptor: a chisel and mallet. Catlett’s right hand earnestly grips her cane, revealing a pride within vulnerability, and is a marvel of tightly observed abstract sculptural rendering.
When contemporary artists approach the figure, the results often fall in various tropes: cultivated incompetence, how-did-they-do-that perfection, or seamless high-budget coldness. But Shea’s women are clearly hand-formed. Shea is unafraid to expose her remarkable and patient skills as a sculptor. The faces and hands, carved from hardened clay by the sculptor herself, expose diverse mementos of their creation—cast, carved, cut, ground, sanded, reshaped, and painted. They are fully resolved but intentionally imperfect. The faces function like a great noh theater mask which changes slightly but decisively as our viewing angles change. The hair is perhaps the most startling addition. Holes are drilled directly into the skulls, and then hand-tied plugs of horse hair or dynel are inserted. Close up, there is an anti-illusionist effect. The holes are too big, and much too obvious. They have the effect of an old doll, whose hair has started to fall out leaving their implant holes too obvious. But from a modest distance these ample manes are most startlingly life-like and effective. Each piece takes a substantial amount of time and labor, each decision conscious, considered, correct.
Shea’s earliest formal training was in fashion, and the “dresses” that her sculptures wear are a significant part of her overall statement. The “garments” are in no way wearable—they are deft representations of garments—but we want to read them as clothing itself. Shea’s knowledge of how clothing is created and how textiles can hang and drape make them convincing and highly specific. The dresses reference mid-century, sensible elegance in cut and lack of ornament: knee length, no frills, no jewelry, some buttons when needed. Clarity abounds. Eccentric details break any sense of monotony: the cowl neckline of Catlett’s sheath, the improbable swoosh of Bourgeois’s felt cape that engulfs and descends to embrace her base.
The coloration of this show is a muted and reserved gray. The shading on the faces, applied almost like make up, remains neutral, enhancing form but no more. But then the artist gives us a dash of chromatic bravura such as the orange under-blouse of Catlett’s ensemble or the flash of cobalt hose on Marisol.
The figures engage us directly and emotionally with a content that is modulated and complex. They are strikingly contemporary. We feel like we know these women, that they are of our time. Marisol’s huge black eyes framed by her dramatic wedge of black hair stare us down. These eyes (like the others in the show) gaze past us into an indeterminate distance. But then on subsequent viewings, these same eyes reveal a worldly compassion and curiosity that is at odds with Marisol’s militant postural stance. Bourgeois’s wry smile can be snarky, self-amused, or even endearing. (Louise Bourgeois endearing?) For me, the most complex contradiction is in “Easy Does It” (2014). This stylish young woman looks as if she has received some crushing news, frail and alone in her “modified” Converse sneakers, wan blond hair, and an inexplicably elegant sheath dress. Her hands are thrust deep into her pockets, but perhaps they are clenched fists too. Yet her chin is imperceptibly tilted up, waiting, perhaps hoping. She is holding a lot in. What that is, we will never know.
Each time I visited the exhibition, the room was quiet. The individual sculptures were bathed in their own orbs of gallery lighting. The considered spatial arrangement of the figures was full without being overwhelming. The older sculptors stared down the younger women and Catlett gazing out the window. The silence was rich and profound. This installation left me with a strongly mixed reaction: I savored the intensity of being the only person in this otherworldly realm, yet on the other hand I wanted everyone to be seeing them as well.