The seven beautifully expressive, bearded bronze heads in this exhibition at Nohra Haime Gallery (May 20–June 20, 2009), by the Mexican artist Javier Marín, each stand almost five feet tall, flowing beards included. They are mounted on narrow steel pillars with circular bases, and above these severe geometries their beards proliferate, snake, braid and intertwine. Their heads are bald, and their faces are solemn, with sensual features, richly textured surfaces and vigorous, confident modeling. One can see that the original plasticene clay was masterfully and also tenderly handled. Yet each head is deeply inscribed—gouged—with a letter, front and back. They are arranged to spell out “MATARAS” on their foreheads and “VIVIRAS” across their pates: “You Will Kill” and “You Will Live,” according to the artist.
These heads, for all their sensuality and the terribilità of their modeling, have an ascetic quality. They seem poised to listen. There is an undulation along the row of them as they tilt, raise and duck their faces. These slight gestures convey extraordinary ceremony and lifelikeness. The central head is symmetrical and frontal and, with its closed eyes, softened mouth and serene inwardness, almost Buddhist. The one who looks down on us as if from the Cross seems to suppress a groan. Others have mouths with the pout of Michelangelo’s Moses or a downturned Olmec sneer. All are ageless and slightly androgynous. Some have partly detached beards. If, instead, they wore the exuberant bronze wigs that are exhibited along with them (in a larger size—the wigs here are sculpted on a smaller scale), they might approximate the feminine hauteur of courtiers or ladies-in-waiting to an Infanta. There is a fervor to them that is unusual in contemporary figurative sculpture. The Three Wigs evoke both menace and camp, which links this show to Marín’s earlier work, which has sometimes verged on the grotesque.
Marín draws deeply on pre-Colombian art and has made references in his past work to Tlaloc, the blood- and tear-thirsty Aztec rain god and, in Marín’s large composite pieces made from fragments of his figures, to ossuaries or mass graves. He has cast some of his other sculptures in resin mixed with tobacco, amaranth seeds or powdered rose petals, which have magical associations. The Aztecs used amaranth flour mixed with blood and honey to make sculpted figures for ritual sacrifice and consumption. Marín cast another edition of these Seven Heads, which are traveling to exhibitions elsewhere, in wax-like polyester resin reinforced with strips of a traditional Mexican staple: air-dried beef. Making the sculptures out of actual meat certainly adds protein to the “You Will Kill/You Will Live” message. Here, the Heads employ only the traditional vocabulary of monumental sculpture from the Old and New Worlds, and yet even in mute, inorganic bronze they have considerable mystery.
Asked about his influences and companions, the artist replied, “I hate figurative sculpture,” and grinned. His favorite contemporary artist is his schoolmate Gabriel Orozco, an art-star and a very witty conceptual object-maker, whose work with clay has included rolling a ball of plasticene his own weight through the streets of New York City, picking up a thick patina of grit and art-critical approval along the way. But Marín is a figurative sculptor, and one of the best. His gift is to evoke powerful associations to many different traditions while creating his own surprising fusion. He can sculpt generic things—a languid female nude, a heroic muscled torso or, as in this show, a row of sapient heads—and make them new.
Throughout the heyday of non-representational art, many sculptors continued to produce figurative art. They thought of themselves as “keeping the tradition alive,” but the flow of realistic, often technically skilled work was usually too generic to be of interest to the mainstream art world. As a result, many contemporary critics cannot tell the difference between a beautiful and exciting figurative sculpture and an inert statue because they have not been trained to see a difference. It’s not surprising that a sculptor as ambitious as Javier Marín would want to disassociate himself from figurative art and its tradition.
Marín strategically employs a variety of techniques that are standard practice for anyone who wishes to be considered a viably contemporary artist and not “merely” a virtuoso sculptor with serious academic training. The bronze Heads are pierced and drilled and seamed with welds that have been left as evidence of their manufacture, and Marín has learned from Rodin to connect parts crudely and let the breaks show. Much more original, expressive and interesting are the artist’s own markings: the lettering, the deep cuts across some of the mouths, the blurring of some of the eyes with stripes of clay, the eyelashes that jut out like fangs and the random-seeming incisions, blobs and scurrying tool markings that mar these beautiful faces and add to their poignancy.
Javier Marín is a smart, savvy and very talented artist who deserves more attention in this country and from the mainstream art world. He has achieved an essentially American synthesis of European and indigenous cultural traditions. He has produced monumentally scaled work infused with private motivations and meanings—paradoxically public mysteries. He manages to be ambitious and prolific without relinquishing his craft. Yet for all his high-concept, strategic combinations of common sculpture materials with occult substances and his utterly non-academic, quasi-religious tone, his work is powerful because of its form, its beautifully realized human form. And it is a joy to see such talent, wit and energy bringing new life to figurative sculpture. Nohra Haime Gallery, 41 East 57th Street, New York, New York 10022. Telephone (212) 888-3550. Email firstname.lastname@example.org