Sunday, January 28, 1996
By Victoria Donohoe, INQUIRER ART CRITIC
Christopher Cairns' sculptures in bronze are presences - not imitations of reality, but realities in themselves. The human figures and portrait heads in his retrospective show at Haverford College, where he teaches, have evolved out of a lifetime of working in the representational and near-representational vein.
We get from his exhibit no particular sense of style, let alone stylishness, but rather the feeling of a strong, yet reticent sensibility very much in control of his sculptural medium.
Artwork as many-sided as his is not easily encompassed in a conventional gallery retrospective. Different spaces have been created by the gallery and the artist, including a couple of ``rooms'' that increase our sense of his scope from 1973 to the present. Cairns' studio is in a former firehouse in Havertown.
Front and center is his large and looming Rack of Heads, an ensemble of 30 bronzes, which reveals him as a penetrating physiognomist. Cairns knows just how faces age and how heads press forward on craning necks, droop with drowsiness, or are held entreatingly or nobly aloft.
Other work is socially oriented, so the artist has exulted in occasional public projects - his latest being his six-foot Lazarus, which briefly graced this show before its dedication today at Elizabethtown College's new performing arts center.
In this piece, Cairns shows the strength of bronze, not its heaviness. A close reading of such works suggests that the artist's inner experiences are dense and rich.
This installation responds well to the high drama of certain works set apart, especially those placed in a small room lined menacingly in reddish-brown burlap. These figures variously meet their fate in the red room, caught in the airless tomb of the memorialist's inner eye. Such sculptures do not in any way personify the dark forces of human nature, but these images do brim over with feelings of apprehension. Had Cairns represented them realistically as portraying very specific episodes, their poetic force would have been diminished.
The Haverford show really scores in the superb display of these sometimes horrific pieces in bronze and plaster in the two specially-built rooms.
As for Cairns' sensibility, despite its present-day orientation, it draws its basic spirit from some other realm of time, or timelessness. There is a sense of primitive mystery in this show. Cairns' imagination is tuned in to primitive archetypes and myth.
Thus his figure sculptures have a power beyond the visual - the power to recall us to elementary experiences. A stunning show not to be missed.
The show is at Haverford College's Cantor Fitzgerald Gallery, Coursey Road in Haverford, until Feb. 18. Gallery hours are Mondays through Fridays 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.; Saturdays and Sundays, noon to 4 p.m. For information, call 610-896-1333.