Haverford Sculptor's Work is Taking a Breath of Fresh Air: Christopher Cairns' bronzes explore man's place in nature.

Sunday, July 2, 1995
Philadelphia Inquirer
By Victoria Donohoe, INQUIRER ART CRITIC

As with many other artists, the contents of an artwork are important and are a determining factor in shaping Christopher Cairns' sculptures. This Haverford artist is exhibiting numerous bronze heads and three standing bronze figures outdoors at Michener Art Museum. Here is a lively exhibit seeking a breath of fresh air outside.

Reverence to the human figure and the human spirit is the response Cairns is inviting. His sculptures are not only the product of serious ambition and considerable attainment. They are in their very abstraction fundamentally identifiable and substantially realistic.

For Cairns, the important consequence of a return to, or more accurately a stronger affirmation of, content was a renewed fascination with the condition of humanity. His predilection for universal statements about themes of love, death, metamorphosis, redemption and violence are combined here with a striving for expressive means able to give form to his highly individualistic perceptions of man's place in nature. The show illuminates central aspects of his development. It lets us see that Cairns has not so much reached a culmination in his work as he has carved out a territory of his own to explore and build on.

His stately Synagogue figure, relating to work of the same name on Strasbourg Cathedral's south portal in France, and his Angel with Nails, poignant with the transient energy of its gesture (a piece partly inspired by a medieval French wooden figure at New York's Metropolitan Museum) are a reminder, if needed, that good sculpture need not be innovative or risky. It just requires positive features that may include strength, elegance or sensitivity, with other parts that come together in a convincing way.

By contrast, the monumental-size heads, with very little detail on their surfaces, all tend to look alike at first glance, the way sycamore trees look alike unless we take the time to examine them more closely. Repetition of these upright shapes conveys some degree of a powerful universal truth about human beings and their separateness despite a common thread of their relationship to each other. It harmoniously unifies these heads meant to be viewed from the front, underscoring their vertical rhythms.

So, by some standards, Cairns is a "conservative" artist, bound to conventional imagery, secure in his handling of the traditional medium of bronze. But his work also illustrates why we should not get locked into labels. Finally, Cairns is not alone in his struggle to renew American sculpture, but is a part of an excellent group of artists who have included his late colleague Jonathan Silver - the difference between them being the difference between a white oak and a copper beech.

Also at Michener: Some of Katharine Steele Renninger's paintings have achieved near-icon status in Bucks County. Living and working in Newtown, Renninger has made her artistic statement out of the architectural ornament and everyday objects of the region. Many of those paintings are featured in her 40-year retrospective exhibit at Michener.

At her best, Renninger performs an act of sympathetic transformation upon Bucks County. Victorian gingerbread porches, older winding staircases, wicker furniture and a spinning wheel, apple crates and bird cages, old louvered shutters. Those objects in her paintings aren't emblems of the life of the region in themselves, but emblems of a Bucks County culture which was deeply attached to the period that produced such artifacts. Renninger records with art a stage in history. And she does so plentifully supplied with allusion.

Renninger has an effervescent imagination when it comes to selecting her motifs. These subjects are intimate without ever including the human figure. While the tempo runs quiet and deep here, the technique she uses is extremely precise and articulate. Her structuring mind transforms everyday objects into intricate, almost abstract patterns, which she smoothes into "presentable" images, painting them in subdued earth tones, never in bright, bouncing colors. This approach has emerged through a painting series begun in the late- 1950s.

Renninger's work has long aimed to create an aura of the unexplained and the mysterious. Extension of space by various methods opens the painting surface in an unorthodox but coherent manner. Patterns of Victorian architecture and design in particular have provided one of Renninger's most reliable compositional methods for dividing space into easily manageable areas allowing strong and effective contrasts.

The most recent manifestation of her quest to become even more local and to find the universal through the particular: Renninger has begun to paint market veggies. This is more of a departure than it might seem. Her previous interest in richness of effect to the point at which it approaches decay isn't necessarily something the Central Bucks Chamber of Commerce would love. Such paintings can have the melancholy of social realism. But freshly harvested cabbages? They lighten things up a bit. Still, in the long run, things, living or inanimate, tell Renninger what to do.


* Michener Art Museum, 138 S. Pine St, Doylestown. Cairns to Oct. 29, Renninger to Sept. 10. Tuesdays through Fridays, 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Saturdays and Sundays 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. For more information, call 215-340-9800.