Christopher Cairns: Sculpture in Bronze and Plaster

February 29 - April 11, 1996
Show at Muhlenberg College, PA
By Cynthia Nadelman

The body as a sculptural medium for tales of human affliction, historical catastrophe, natural disaster, and sometimes moral redemption: this is Christopher Cairns territory. Having gone beyond pure analysis of form and formal defenses of figurative sculpture's relevance, Cairns has gradually joined the flow of one of sculpture's major streams. From Veit Stoss and anonymous Gothic stonemasons to Donatello's Mary Magdalen to Rodin's Burghers of Calais and finally to George Segal's wrapped human forms, sculptors have encountered classical approaches to ideal form with depictions of the human body in extremis. In Cairns' case, these depictions range from the New Testament story of the raising of Lazarus to The Angry Gardener, the contemporary and frighteningly matter-of-fact portrayal of an agitated young man pivoting on his own body's axis, holding a large sack and carrying a sack which, in The Angry Gardener Goes Berserk, becomes a human body or corpse being dragged by a rope around its neck.

This replacement of one motif, form, or segment with another is something that sculptors have traditionally done, and it is especially pertinent here. Rodin, for one, did it consistently, notably in The Gates of Hell, where limbs and torsos can be seen rearranged in various ways throughout the composition. In a narrative art, such replacements and reconfigurations serve both the story and the manner of its telling. The slender, youthful figure of the gardener, in his own skewed contrapposto, eerily mirrors the David of Donatello, a sculpture at the extreme other end of that artist's oeuvre from the suffering of Mary Magdalen. The splayed led of both the gardener and his victim seem related to those of Rising Lazarus, a figure Cairns earlier depicted in a lying-down position and has changed to an upright, almost levitating one. He has almost eliminated a dramatically outstretched arm that was in an earlier Lazarus in favor of a more symmetrical arrangement of arms at the figure's side.

All of Cairns's figures have a thin, waiflike, or wraithlike, aspect that connects them to both of the aforementioned works of Donatello rather than to the tradition of heroic suffering of, say, Michelangelo's Slaves. There are many suggestions of shrouds, mummies' wrappings, life and death masks, and other accoutrements of the body preserved, memorialized, and otherwise nonsculpturally observed. Other elements - for example, piles of skulls, emaciated bodies, desiccated flesh - are suggestive of deliberate extermination.

Eve as Death, a timeless figure in a traditional contrapposto, perched on a pile of skulls, illustrates another aspect of Cairns's longstanding shapeshifting approach to sculpture. She - like the female figures Synagogue, Stanchion, Misericordia, and Black Madonna - has an indentation at her pelvis, a suggestion of other positions she could take, of other convex or concave forms that could be substituted. In short, this device is a reminder that things cannot be taken for granted in sculpture, that sculpture is a process of making decisions about forms and their eventual meaning. In an earlier sculpture, Esmeralda, which Cairns has recently changed by placing it on a pile of plaster bricks, this process is spelled out more deliberately. Geometric forms echoing crucifixes draw attention to the body as a formal problem. In Cairns's recent sculpture, such references to geometry are more likely to take the form of a carried stick, a tree trunk, or an outstretched arm - formal touches with narrative or expressive significance.

The Rack of Heads is in many ways the apotheosis of Cairns's new style. As opposed to his earlier heads, which are formally concerned with the oval shape as a "head-on" entity, this "cabinet" has a different purpose. Most of the heads in it - many taken from his full figures - have been cast in bronze and patinated in various earth tones. They are placed in rows but in willy-nilly fashion. They comprise a sort of rogue's gallery of facial and head types - a panorama of human expression, perhaps deriving its unleashed variety from the very fact that this same sculptor was formerly more interested in extracting a pure essence of headness from this same form. Most of the heads are upright, some lean or lie on their sides. They vary in size and are rendered in different styles. They form a compendium, or a pseudo-scientific survey, of the very thing they represent. They are a sculptor's closet, from which examples can be taken down or used at will. Most of all, seen this way, they are a celebration of the expressiveness and power of figurative sculpture.

The good, the bad, and the ugly alike are given a place in this sculptor's universe, which tries to live up to the world sculpture reflects. Like Lazarus himself, the meaningful head and figure have been raised by Cairns from a deathlike state and vividly brought to life.