Christopher Cairns Sculpture at New York Studio School

November, 1985
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 individuals.

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 vertical axis.

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 to come.

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.