(Andrea reviews a show of drawings and monumental sculptures in bronze and other materials by Barbara Chase-Riboud and finds them filled with historical, art historical and cultural references from across cultures and through time.–theartblog editors)
In the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s (PMA ) stunning installation, each of Barbara Chase-Riboud’s five works from the series she dedicated to Malcolm X, stands in its own niche. She calls them steles, a term for upright, stone monuments inscribed with text, and a form that has survived from various ancient civilizations. Chase-Riboud’s steles are mysterious and imposing. Lit candles on the floor before them would not look out of place. Each is tall (from 6 ½ to 10 feet), frontal, and composed of an intricately-worked bronze relief above an elaborate skirt of looped, knotted, braided and intertwined skeins of wool, cotton or silk, which falls and splays at the floor.
The Malcolm X Steles – A consistent approach over 40 years
Chase-Riboud created four in the series of thirteen Malcolm X steles in 1969, four years after the civil rights leader was assassinated. The remainder were made in two campaigns of work in 2003 and 2007-8. Perhaps the most unusual and mysterious thing about them is the consistency of the artist’s style over a forty year period. She had placed previous bronze reliefs on the floor, and credits her friend and fellow expatriate artist, Sheila Hicks (they attended graduate school together and both moved to Paris in the 1960s), with suggesting the draped yarn as a means to hide the supporting structures. The size and format of the Malcolm X steles inevitably call to mind large, ceremonial masks made by numerous cultures in Africa, South America and Polynesia, which have raffia skirts to hide the body of the wearer, although the artist has said she was trying to avoid the association with such dancing masks.
The bronze reliefs recall a largely-overlooked tradition of cast bronze sculpture made in both the U.S. and Europe in the two decades following WWII.These works were abstract, or figurative but highly-abstracted, and suggested a content well beyond the formal. I am thinking of work by artists such as Seymour Lipton, Herbert Ferber, Lynn Chadwick, Germaine Richter, Edouard Paolozzi, Arnaldo Pomodoro, Marino Marini and others, as well as the one artist whose reputation has survived, Alberto Giacometti. Little by the others is on view in U.S. museums today. Much of their art featured intricately-worked surfaces, similar to Chase-Riboud’s. The pieces she made prior to the Malcolm X steles fit remarkably well within this tradition.
The process of lost-wax casting
The artist has credited her discovery of the lost wax method for bronze casting as enabling the intricate undercutting of her bronzes. She actually models in wax, rather than in clay or plaster, which usually precedes the wax copy that is expended to create the bronze. The bronzes of the steles are folded, crimped, and cut. A great number of smaller forms have been assembled into more or less ordered wholes. Some have breaks and openings between the channels of the forms, as if they were structures one could enter and leave. The bronzes also have remarkably varying patination. Malcolm X #2 (1969) is almost black, and the regular skeins of matte, black wool hanging below look remarkably like hair. The bronze appears to have been cast from several pieces of leather which were bent into large, organic-looking folds, and has a belt-like form that ends with a tassel. The bronze of Malcolm X #3 (1969) has sharp folds that have been dented and bent, suggesting that it was based upon a model formed from metal. It has an elaborately coifed base which is also a glistening gold. #11 (2008) has an even brighter and shinier golden patina, with a silk skirt the color of straw. #10 (2007) and #13 (2008), both dark bronzes, each has a lighter colored, fiber swag or coil that meanders in and out of the bronze forms before joining a group of dark skeins which drop to the floor. The bronze of All that Rises Must Converge/ Red (2008) is one of the five sculptures from other series that are sited inside and around the central gallery. It is deep red, unlike any bronze surface I know, with a skirt of cardinal red.
Chase-Riboud’s use of yarn not only affiliates her work with that of Hicks, but also with a number of sculptors working during the 60s and 70s who created large works out of wrapped, woven, knotted, stitched and knitted textiles and fibers, sometimes combined with other media. They include Magdalena Abakanowicz, Lee Bontecou, David Hammons, Eva Hesse, John Outterbridge, Alan Shields, Faith Wilding and Jackie Winsor, as well as Ruth Asawa and Lenore Tawney, who were marginalized under the heading of craft.
Work evocative of many traditions
Chase-Riboud has traveled widely and purposely forged a syncretic art from multiple traditions, including that of Ancient Egypt, China and modern Africa. She claims a right to a global heritage by virtue of her broad interests, travels and studies. Her use of textile materials and willingness to combine media is certainly an acknowledgment that other cultures hold these in more esteem than does the West, where she was raised and educated.
The drawings and paper monuments and Piranesi
The exhibition also includes two groups of drawings, which reveal Chase-Riboud to be an extraordinarily gifted draughtsman. The first, from the 1960s-70s begins with a sequence of increasingly-abstracted images of two figures on a bed, then includes an assortment of others where the artist explores the imagery of cords and stones, either stones as found in the landscape or as ruins of a built structure.
The second group of drawings line the walls of the gallery housing the Malcolm X steles. Chase-Riboud made most of them during 1996-97, then added a final drawing in 2011. All are imaginary monuments, mostly to a surprising array of historical figures, including Sheshonq II, Pushkin, Zola, Francesco di Giorgio and Rubens’ mother. They extend the imagery of stones and cords in the earlier drawings, and since the monuments appear to be outdoors, I assumed that the cords were intended to be metal. I realize that makes no sense, as these are not proposals for monuments, but Paper Monuments, much like the Paper Architecture created during the Soviet era by architects who were forbidden to build.
The Paper Monuments each began with an identical etching of what appears to be a bundle of fabric, the central portion of which is bound with densely-wound cord. It sits horizontally, a quarter of the way up (or down) the page. The artist worked the image variously into each monument as she re-worked the etching with charcoal, charcoal pencil and ink. Sometimes it becomes one arm of a structure, or a lintel across an opening. It has been incorporated so thoroughly into other monuments that it all but disappears. Some monuments make fairly clear references to their subjects, such as the Monument to Man Ray’s “The Enigma of Isidore Ducasse,” Philadelphia, which takes the form of the eponymous sculpture. Others are more open to interpretation, such as the Monument to Sheba, which resembles an anatomical drawing of a uterus. Each drawing bears inscription, sometimes extensive, and not always legible – by intent. And each features a horizontal cord, and sometimes its shadow, as if Chase-Riboud finished each drawing with a great flourish.
These Paper Monuments are not only beautifully-drawn, but beautifully laid out, so that the series becomes an exploration of the possibilities of imagery, text, and the blank paper surrounding them. These monuments, and indeed, much of Chase-Riboud’s work, reminds me of the imaginary buildings in the late prints by Giovanni Battista Piranesi, the 18th century architect who built almost nothing. I’m not referring to Piranesi’s most famous prints, the imaginary prisons, nor to his much-valued views of Rome. No – it is his fantastical buildings and mantelpieces, where the long-time student of Greek and Roman classicism also inserts motifs from Etruscan and Egyptian buildings – creating mongrel forms that were not always appreciated. The imaginary building, seen above, bears an inscription from the Roman historian, Sallust: Novitatem meam comtemnunt, ego illorum ignaviam (They despise my novelty, I their timidity).
Barbara Chase-Riboud; The Malcolm Steles, curated by Carlos Basualdo, is on view at the PMA through Jan. 20,2014 and at the University of California, Berkeley Art Museum from Feb. 12 to April 27, 2014.