Can Art Unravel the Fabric of Space and Time? Cultural Diffusion and Contemporary Sculpture

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Charles Ray’s sculpture Hinoki was based on a California Cypress and carved in Japan by traditional woodworkers. Image: Flickr user Ed Bierman
Charles Ray’s sculpture Hinoki was based on a California Cypress and carved in Japan by traditional woodworkers. Image: Flickr user Ed Bierman

The MOMA recently staged an exhibition “Forever Now,” positing a detemporalized, post-internet narrative of art history through the lens of contemporary painting. The exhibition, however, is really just highlighting art’s long-standing tradition of historic appropriation. Sculptors from Aaron Curry, whose abstract figures fuse a “primitivist” linework sampled, Picasso to Charles Ray, whose work Hinoki crosses many geographic and ideological borders, have been inspired by cultures far removed from their own. As artists have increased access to the archives of space and time through the internet and international travel, how does contemporary figurative sculpture reflect international cultural diffusion? Understanding the depth of meaning that a single sculpture contains can deepen the meaning that an individual piece has for collectors.

Can Art Unravel the Fabric of Space and Time? (Seriously.)

Thoughts, personality, dreams, longings, and feeling—are these things all encoded into the material of our bodies, in our minds and our DNA? On a cultural level, our thoughts, dreams, longings, and feelings are encoded into art objects. Sculpture holds an individual artist’s thoughts and feelings, but it also functions as a vessel for the wider network of cultural information that influenced its making.

For the average person, that means we have incredible access to the annals of history in our local museums. We can see gold coins from Rome that tell the story of emperors, merchants, and the development of an empire. We can visit the Louvre and meet the gaze of European nobles throughout history. We can let our eyes unravel the lines of Guernica and imagine Picasso raising a thickly-laden paintbrush in his studio to condemn the senseless violence of war. Even if art can’t physically unravel the fabric of space-time per se, it certainly lets us trace our fingertips much more freely across its warp and weft, bringing to light the unexpected colors of its strands.

Aaron Curry
Aaron Curry’s almost cartoonish silhouettes evoke a both Picasso and a childhood of pop culture. Image Source: Flickr User See-ming Lee

A Cross-Cultural Web of References

Aaron Curry’s almost-figurative sculptures are some of the most blatantly atemporal forms I have seen in the contemporary art world. His free-flowing silhouettes evoke the bold looseness of Picasso’s cubist figures but freeze that motion in monumental-scale metal sculpture. These forms are often surfaced with brash neons and placed on silk-screened bases that seem definitively Pop or even cartoonish in a slime-ball way. They remind me of the characters on Adult Swim or Nickelodeon that always seem to be oozing some form of radiation or neon slime—maybe an extraterrestrial slug from Rick & Morty that wandered into the studio and posed just long enough to be sketched out and cast in bronze.

Charles Ray’s Hinoki contains an equal density of cross-cultural meaning as Aaron Curry’s figurative sculptures, though Hinoki feels much more at ease with its own complex cultural DNA. Hinoki is an elaborate recreation of a fallen Cypress tree that Ray found in a California meadow. The decomposing form was then re-carved by a team of skilled woodworkers in Osaka. When you hear Ray talk about the work, he focuses on the interior of the log, referencing the Japanese concept of pneuma, or “breath,” and the desire to transfer that breath of life from one living being to another through making sculpture. He also describes the different hands that have touched the material as it was recarved by several different artisans, each leaving a distinctive touch on the wood.

For me, Charles Ray’s Hinoki is a deeply meaningful allegory that can reveal how many, many minds go into one form. Although Hinoki is a “contemporary” sculpture that’s made “by” Charles Ray, it contains a density of cultural meaning that can only come from generations and generations of artists, poets, philosophers, and even trees that have lived and added meaning to our culture. When modern-day collectors are shopping for contemporary sculpture, they are actually accessing a much deeper and more sedimented body of thought than that of any individual artist.

Collectors Find Unexpected Stories in Figurative Sculpture

The meaning behind any one work of art can be deeply influenced by the culture of which it was born. Ray’s sculpture is innately Californian, and it holds the story of his walk through a meadow in his home state where he originally found the form. Likewise, when you hear Curry talk about his cartoonish neons and screenprint, he’ll tell you about the pulp culture and TV shows he absorbed as a kid.

I love the artistic and cultural term of “Dreamtime” that Australian Aboriginal culture uses because it beautifully encapsulates that cultural layering that goes into contemporary art-making. Dreamtime is the idea that an individual’s ancestry becomes one as ideas are passed down and sedimented over time into totemic patterns that guide our lives today. When an art-lover can unfurl the history in an object and read all the stories that went into making an individual piece, its meaning becomes exponentially richer.

The McLeod Studio: Building on Australian History

Aden and Karena McLeod are Australian bronze sculptors whose work builds on a vast international base of knowledge. Aden creates figurative sculptures that are as evocative of the muscularity of Rodin as they are of the elaborate natural forms of Gaudi’s cathedral, or of the gnarled and free-flowing patterns found in nature. Often, their figurative work even weaves in the story of Australia’s heritage, such as their Little Old Man sculpture that celebrates an early encounter between Europeans and the native Australians in Cooktown. The McLeods are available for public and private commissions. If you’re interested, contact them online for a consultation.

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