Humans having hard times are artist’s subjects

Sunday, April 17, 2005
Philadelphia Inquirer
By Victoria Donohoe, Inquirer Art Critic

“I Feel Your Pain” could be a title of Christopher Cairns’ 46-piece sculpture exhibit at Haverford College.

In this display, which marks his retirement from his longtime teaching post at Haverford, quite a few works by this longtime Haverford resident show empathy for fellow human beings coping with harsh circumstances.  An example is Last Stand, a life-size effigy of Cairns’ close friend, an avid smoker until his recent death from lung cancer.  This edgy plaster man holds a cigarette, his prone torso propped against a mound of cigarette butts that Cairns’ gloved hands painstakingly gathered on the Main Line and spray-coated to banish any lingering nicotine scent.

Cairns has developed a lifelong morally charged attitude toward his art and toward the portrayal of human-life episodes, and this is made clear in this piece and other plasters, including several stately large symbolic single female figures that show Cairns’ skill in handling size and scale.  The most notable example is his impressive Synagogue as AIDS Memorial.  Not to be overlooked, however, is the puzzling, even confounding, and not a little eccentric turnabout into mayhem suggested by Angry Gardener Goes Berserk, also in plaster.

But the show also includes something seldom seen in exhibits: portrait heads of a personal hero of the sculptor’s.  In this case, music lover Cairns brings distinction to several likenesses of the great American composer George Rochberg.  The composer is given here his own small display room (it’s called a Rochbergtorium) featuring sensitively interpreted sculptured heads and a video interview with Rochberg.  This unusual display-within-a-display adds a further note of expressiveness and individuality to a show installed by Cairns.

Certainly the single most important bronze on view—there are 27 all told—is also the largest of these, a majestic, sensitively modeled Lazarus Rising that lifts the current exhibit to unprecedented heights and may be taken as a summation of his art.  This show should go a long way in according Cairns his due recognition.  For, by any standard, he’s one of the truly accomplished figure sculptors working today.