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Review: Jaume Plensa at the Nasher

by Jerome Weeks 8 Feb 2010 8:13 AM

It looks wrong, but it’s not. The elongation of that stone face is not the fault of the photo. Contemporary Spanish artist Jaume Plensa deliberately distorts his busts of young women like that. And it’s those alabaster heads — eleven of them, six feet tall — that are the fascinating achievements in his new show, Genus and Species, at the Nasher Sculpture Center.



  • Gaile Robinson’s review for dfw.com
  • KERA radio review:
    • Expanded online review:

    Traditionally, sculptors haven’t messed much with words or lettering. Painters and printmakers and collagists, yes, even contemporary electronic artists like Jenny Holzer with her counter-sloganeering.

    But it’s really only since Pop Art that sculptors like Robert Indiana have made language or letters into three-dimensional subjects, both abstract and literal. Before Pop Art, words were too obvious, two-dimensional and too message-y. Now — after Warhol and Holzer and the many conceptualists — culture is viewed as nothing but messages and signs. So let’s extract them, subvert them, enrich them, decontextualize them.

    Spanish sculptor and conceptual artist Jaume Plensa is the first living artist to be featured in an exhibition at the Nasher Sculpture Center (the drawings and architectural models of Foster + Partners don’t count, it would seem). And words, even isolated letters and symbols from different languages, are favorite materials of his. The Nasher has owned a Plensa before this: Song of Songs III and IV — two, glass-brick telephone booths with quotations from Solomon’s love poetry in Hebrew on the metal doors (one Song, below). Out in the Nasher’s garden, seven bronze figures now sit clasping individual trees, the names of Plensa’s favorite composers planted all over their skins. Even to enter the current show of 28 works, one must pass through Twenty-nine Palms, a stainless steel curtain of verse that divides the length of the central gallery. Metal letters dangle vertically down, spelling out quotations from some 29 poets — in German, Spanish, French and English. I didn’t read all of the more than 100 strings, but I recognized lines from Baudelaire and halfway along, the hyacinth girl from The Waste Land makes an appearance (“Your arms full and your hair wet”).

    For opposite reasons, both Song of Songs and Twenty-nine Palms are playful works — Song for its mysteriously encased and encasing enigma (the work seems to offer the opportunity to step inside the Bible’s erotic poetry or let us peer at it from outside) while with Twenty-nine Palms, we step through the verse. It’s fun. But it’s also a much more spelled out work, as it were. At Friday’s press luncheon, Plensa laughingly denied that he was just showing off his multi-cultural reading list. But one has to wonder — would another selection of readings make much difference to its effect?

    Otherwise, Plensa’s lettered human figures are his least captivating — his most, well, literal — works. The words seem stuck on, even unnecessary. Regardless of whatever else they might say, words on a figure spell out for a viewer, “This is not simply a human shape, it is a metaphor, a symbol.”

    Ah. We wouldn’t have guessed otherwise, although one possible clue is provided by the electric bulbs inside several of these generic, polyester humans that cause them to change colors. Acting like traffic lights would seem to indicate they’re not examples of realism.

    one headOn the other hand, when we head into the gallery with eleven of Plensa’s alabaster heads, six-feet-tall, we enter a vastly different realm of experience. Plensa’s busts are his real achievement: They’re entrancing. Even in other instances, they’re his biggest success — in both senses of big — from the 13-foot tall steel head of a Chinese girl at SMU’s Meadows Museum to Dream, his spectacular, 60-foot tall concrete head in St. Helens, outside Liverpool.

    In his own press luncheon speech, Nasher director Jeremy Strick spoke about how Plensa’s works are both contemporary and timeless. Indeed, the eleven stone heads evoke a whole slate of classic precedents. The alabaster looks like marble and with raw chunks of it still left on the base and the backs of the heads, they look crumbled and ancient — like lost dryads from a Greek temple. Or figures from a Cambodian temple.

    Plensa deliberately chooses young women for his models and elongates the heads — thus removing any idea of ordinary portraiture. But this also makes the busts resemble Tiki statues or Easter Island moai. The peacefulness of the young girls — their closed-eyes, their air of internal focus, plus their long earlobes — evoke statues of Buddha. There are other Buddhist elements in the exhibition as well: Those huddled, curled-up figures of men (Where Are You? I, II and III) seem to have been inspired by Japanese carvings of praying Buddhist monks (below, left). Even the image of a man contemplating a tree recalls Buddha’s experience achieving nirvana under a fig tree.

    Plensa taps into more modern streams as well. In the way these girls seem to emerge from the rough, shapeless rock and then sink back into it, they recall Medardo Rosso’s wax-over-plaster heads from the turn of the last century, several of which are in the Nasher collection (below, right, Ecce puer, 1906). Rosso’s haunting works are similarly sensual, lovely and deliberately left “unfinished.” But Rosso’s intention was to “de-materialize” what was solid, to suggest the ephemeral and dreamlike (his figures are often asleep), to make plaster melt into fog, fabric or skin, to cease being plaster.

    Plensa’s busts, on the other hand, take quiet delight in alabaster as a kind of magical rock, be it raw, chiseled or polished to a silky sheen. Even as we’re aware of the tangible, caressable beauty of these young women, we cannot escape this solid material. Plensa exposes its flaws, lets the veins and the quartz in the gypsum stand out. Alabaster naturally seems to glow, it can be both cloudy and translucent, it looks as if it’s actually warm. So the girls seem to be stone becoming flesh, emerging from stone — like Pygmalion.



    Unpacking some of the references and associations Plensa’s stone heads call up has taken me this long because this is the way language works: Item by item waits its turn to plod into sentences. But you turn the corner at the Nasher, see these rows of alabaster young women, and all of this can strike you at once.

    This, it seems to me, is what the finest sculptures do. Strike us speechless.  Put us beyond words.