Source: ART/WORLD, VOL. 10 NO. 2
By Jonathan Silver
Older art appears in contemporary art in two ways: as references
crudely juxtaposed within structures invented by the artist and
combined uneasily with his personal images, a practice which lowers
high art into the vernacular and raises the artist by association.
This is common. The second way, Christopher Cairns' way, is rare:
in his sculpture reminiscences of older art are family resemblances,
born of love and natural inheritance, and coexist with the contemporary
in reciprocal harmony. This art and its sources bring each to life.
(Christopher Cairns, Sculpture in bronze and plaster at The New
York Studio School, 8 West Street, to Nov. 15, and in bronze at
Leslie Cecil Gallery, 15 East 72, to Nov. 16.)
But art history comes to mind only after our initial response to
this extraordinary sculpture. First comes the impact of the subject
matter and our sense of the artist's special relation to it. "Synagogue,"
at the New York Studio School, is a life size female figure on a
sizable base shaped from elements of the figure itself.
It is important that the figure stands at seven feet. She broods
above us sulky and forbidding, provocative and remote. The turn
of her left leg wrenches her left hip out of its socket and the
twist of her shoulders is strained and painful, but this violence
is composed by a rigorous discipline and the resultant emphasis
is on power rather than pathos.
The blending of responsive convexities and concavities is no mere
formal device, but portrays a profound ambivalence toward female
sexuality; love and hatred, fear and desire, are inextricably bound
up with one another and the fused positive and negative forms remind
us of the uneasy coexistence of the male and female principle within
It is important that Cairns' "Synagogue" was inspired
by the synagogue on the south portal of Strasbourg Cathedral. It
is the image of the abandoned old church, the discredited mother
of the Christian church which displaces it. Through this association
the purely personal is bound to the cultural forces at play within
the artist's mind and not merely expressed but symbolized and enlarged.
Hetaera Esmeralda is the poisonous butterfly, the diseased prostitute
from whom Thomas Mann's Dr. Faustus, the composer Adrian Leverkuhn,
gets syphilis and thereby seals his pact with the devil. Cairns'
"Esmeralda" is distinguished from the later, fuller-bodied
and more lyrical work by its uncompromising frontality: the positive
and negative elements are set off against each other across a severe
Here the marked central division, as in a butterfly read in a Rorschach
ink blot, becomes the figure's sex. The anatomical divisions are
marked and penetrated at the ankles, hips and head by bars casting
shadows which cut dramatically through the more evenly diffused
light on the main body of the piece and give the effect of a human
figure bound and pierced by magic signs. Creativity, sexuality and
their demonic connection is the subject here.
"Lydia-Mary" is death-as-mother in Hermann Hesse's "Narcissus
and Goldmund." This is perhaps the finest piece in the show
and combines in an image of great power and beauty the formal rigor
of "Esmeralda" with the abandoned sensuality of "Synagogue."
It is a piece in which many qualities are combined with deceptive
simplicity and the viewer is respectfully advised to allow time
for the condensed meanings to reveal themselves.
Two of Cairns' smaller pieces deserve special attention: "The
Suicide of Jesus" and "Somme," a model memorial for
the fallen at the battle of that name. These are modeled directly
in clay and in their directness are significant harbingers of things
Finally, among equally fine works at the Leslie Cecil Gallery uptown
is the beautiful "Black Madonna." Let the title stand
without further comment as a reminder of that dark and deep subject
which is Cairns' special province.