For anyone interested in figurative sculpture, the year began with a notable event, as J. Johnson Gallery in Jacksonville Beach, Florida, presented twenty-one monumental and life-size bronze and terracotta works by the extraordinary Mexican artist Javier Marín. The works, weighing over 200 tons, were flown in from Mexico City. Over fourteen feet long, the bronze Chacmol (2001) exemplified both his epic thinking and his art historical reach. The reclining figure—knees bent, head turned towards the viewer—mimics an ancient Aztec configuration. At the same time, the modeling of the face and the eloquently oversized hands and feet are reminiscent of the nineteenth-century sculptor Rodin; the distortion is especially telling in the Burghers of Calais. Deeply connected to his own cultural heritage, Marín adds pre-Columbian influences to his creative mix. The workings of individual contributions to the art historical continuum are always intriguing. Rodin based his Gate of Hell, in part, on Ghiberti’s Gates of Paradise at the Bapistry in Florence, for example. Like Michelangelo, an artist he obviously admires, Marín understands both the principles of classical form and the expressive possibilities of roughly handled materials. The muscularity and weight of Chacmol has a barely controlled energy that recalls the Renaissance master’s figures of Day and Night, Dawn and Dusk from the Medici Chapel, as well the heroic contortions of the Bound Slaves. And like Michelangelo, Marín grasps the notion of the “unfinished” masterpiece, where evidence of the struggle of wresting form from raw material becomes part of the theme. There is one kind of artistic miracle in the polished legerdemain of marble imitating flesh; there is another, equally valid, in Marín’s primordial hand-shaping.
Marín throws a spotlight on process not only through the roughness of his surfaces, which gives bronze the warmth and spontaneity of clay, but also through deliberately retained vestiges of the casting process. In Torso de Hombre (2003) spikes of bronze are left exposed, showing us how molten metal flows into casts. These flanges serve a thematic function as well, giving the emotionally resonant figure the look of a cult object, a martyred saint. The heavily worked surface—with a sun-baked patina that resembles another favorite medium, terracotta—carries the marks of the artist’s hand. When working with clay, he gouges holes and scrawls words into the raw matter; his surfaces are as mysteriously inscribed as the highly textural paintings of the Spanish abstractionist Antonio Tapiès. Marín starts working the clay without reference to live models, but he draws on a storehouse of anatomical knowledge built up over years of drawing from the figure.
The dynamism of Marín’s contrapposto makes Torso de Mujer con Cuatro Cabezas Intercambiables (2004) particularly eloquent. The figure of a woman (60" x 31" x 19"), in earth and polyester resin, twists and yearns. She could be a Daphne struggling to escape Apollo or a Persephone breaking free of Hades. Yet the figure has none of the silky smooth marble texture of Bernini’s mythological set pieces. Arms and legs truncated like an unearthed classical goddess, she is also a Galatea in the process of freeing herself from the bonds of art, or perhaps an Eve coming forth from dust. The coarseness of the mud-like medium is both sensuously appealing and conceptually provocative, an exciting counterpoint to the classical grace of the figure’s bodily movement. For Marín, faces are as evocative as gestures. In a close-up detail of Cabeza Tubichino (2002) we are drawn to a majestic face, deep-eyed, full-lipped and given character by the artist’s marks that score the cheeks and forehead, enhancing rather than disfiguring her beauty. The scroll-like waves of hair emphasize the bronze’s patina, warm as a virtuoso’s violin. A series of portrait heads has a similar earthiness, along with features that hearken back to the Mayans.
Born in Uruapan, Michoacan, Mexico, in 1962, Marín studied at the National Academy of Art in Mexico City. He has exhibited throughout Mexico as well as internationally and been featured in thirty solo and over a hundred group shows at, among other venues, the Santa Barbara Museum of Art in California, the Arnot Museum of Art in Elmira, New York, the Petit Palais in Paris and the Guggenheim Bilbao. This is an important artist, whose figures are historically and cross-culturally resonant, deeply humanistic and immediately seductive. J. Johnson Gallery, 177 Fourth Avenue North, Jacksonville Beach, Florida 32250. Telephone (904) 435-3200. On the web at www.jjohnsongallery.com