Los Angeles

Robert Cremean

Mekler Gallery

Picasso supposedly said, when reproached for the “ugliness” of one of his early Cubist paintings, “What comes after can be beautiful.” Sixty years after the fact, Robert Cremean is still working out basically Cubist tenets in his sculpture—while in the meantime the revolutionary has become the academic. Cremean is an academic sculptor but, as we’ve learned of the 19th century, the academic also has its merits. Cremean is a very impressive academic sculptor; his work can be both interesting and beautiful.

The Mekler Gallery show (there’s a concurrent, and I think less impressive, exhibition at the Newport Beach Museum) is composed of 18 pieces, all varied aspects of the same female figure, carved from blocks of laminated sugarpine, covered here and there (on a hand, a towel, in a fragment of Cubist checkerboard) with a patch of white gesso. Although not displayed in place because of a space problem at the gallery, the pieces are meant to be exhibited in a phalanx through which the spectator can move. At the apex stands Study with White Glove, the most complete and complex of the single pieces. Each of the rows which make up the phalanx is composed of, respectively, two, three, four, five and six works united by theme. The fourth row, for instance, is Four Views of a Torso, while the sixth is made up of six busts. It’s as though the Cubist illusion of differing views is no longer sufficient—here we have actual differing views, each incorporating differing views: Cubism squared.

Not only the placement, but the works themselves suggest the influence of Marisol, though without the same degree of whimsey. Instead there’s the calm, streamlined solidity of Jo Davidson’s portrait of Gertude Stein, a work which Cremean may consciously echo here in the smooth, bland features, the chignon, the taciturn set of the body.

In his bronze work, Cremean is concerned with the positive/negative relation between mold and cast (with its reminders of process). This he carries through to his wood sculptures in a lush rhythm of relating concave and convex form, in the submission of the figure-subject to the edges of the block, and, as smoothly sanded carving gives way to geometric block or to roughly chiseled passages, in a Michelangelesque play between the finished and the unfinished.

There’s an incremental richness of both form and connotation to this complex project. It’s not necessary to know that the whole thing is meant to represent a portrait in time—past and future—but it doesn’t hurt either. The pieces bear the narrative weight gracefully, and nearly all are capable of standing by themselves.

Bjorn Rye