Addressing the Frailties of Humanity: Christopher Cairns' sculptures at Haverford College strike a balance between hope and despair.

April 14, 2002
Philadelphia Inquirer
By Victoria Donohoe

In a sense, there is a war being chronicled in Christopher Cairns' expanded tableau of 11 life-size male figures at Haverford College.

Several plaster men are flailing, reaching out in a helpless state, or self-absorbed. Preoccupied with small tasks, another man bends over to pick up a piece of string, while still another shows religious devotion as he kneels to light a votive candle. Noblest among these plaster wayfarers modeled originally in clay and rags is a central figure (Figure 2), care-worn but composed and confident.

All these expressionistically inclined people sculptures are part of Wieviel Stück? (How Many Pieces?), Cairns' sculpture exhibit at Haverford, where this longtime fine arts professor teaches.

However, the war that matters to Cairns is unrelated to the World War II conflict that was overwhelming both hemispheres when the Italian-Jewish author Primo Levi was imprisoned at Auschwitz. Levi, whose books Cairns admires, wrote that every group of detainees arriving for induction at Auschwitz was callously barked at with "wieviel stück?" - "how many pieces?" in English - in reference to the human cargo in tow. Cairns took that salutation merely as the title for his tableau, not its theme.

By contrast, Cairns' war has to do with the struggle going on in the minds of people today between a part of them that wishes to live life vibrantly every day and the part that wishes to give up the struggle and settle for a ruinous course of withdrawing from life into some kind of seclusion.

Cairns' dramatic, confrontational yet mysterious tableau with its faintly heard soundtrack of someone whistling the hymn "Amazing Grace" seems to be telling us powerfully, as did the late English war poet Sidney Keyes, that "we must create our peace, but war is private."

Cairns does indeed address himself here to a very basic awareness of the frailties of the human condition. In doing so, he steps in at the point where people who had dreams of possessing the whole world discover they must trim down their expectations, and they react to this realization in various ways. Yet Cairns' types of people (for they are types rather than individuals), after battling setbacks in life, mostly have not tried to regain that lost ground, or else they wish to do so, but cannot find the means. Therefore, the obvious hero of Wieviel Stück? is the one invincible fellow who triumphs over adversity by keeping his precarious balance.

Also worth noting is that Cairns brings to a rather high and daring resolution some of the possibilities of giving these people sculptures an emotional edge and psychological acuity. It's his way of reminding us what it means to be human and to be alive.

Meanwhile, two things are immediately apparent. Although the large tableau provides the show's main spectacle, this is an exhibit mostly of bronzes selected from the artist's work of the last 32 years.

The first thing the viewer notices on entering the gallery is the unusual temporary display space that has been created by building an encircling maze containing a half-dozen small rooms each tightly angled into the next within the gallery's 1,800 square feet. Fortunately, this setting allows for more than the usual rapid-viewing experience, and it also heightens the drama of the transformed space where the tableau is, creating a tension between the meditative and theatrical aspects of that work.

To those familiar with Cairns' output, the small expressive bronze figures of the late 1990s may come as a welcome surprise, or as no surprise at all. No surprise, that is, because many of these pieces were obviously shaped by the same concerns that informed his early work, and consequently they share their look to a certain extent.

Bronze standing female figures of the 1980s, all done in flat planes with a play of convexes and concaves, show Cairns not interested in all-sided form but liking to suggest it. These works of that decade include some of his most outstanding sculptures in their investigation of the possibilities of cubist-derived abstraction. Once these figures begin, the Cairns story takes on a lot of polish.

He is one of the senior figures in the Philadelphia art scene, an influential artist whose sense of vocation - a sense of art conceived primarily as a moral enterprise - still reflects the atmosphere and ambition of the early 20th century.

As for his accomplishment as a teacher and artist, Cairns is unlikely to have accomplished so much as a teacher if he'd not been able to think of himself as an artist.

Haverford College's Cantor Fitzgerald Gallery, Coursey Road, Haverford. To May 5. Mondays-Fridays 11 a.m.-5 p.m., weekends noon-5. 610-896-1037.