New York

Alain Kirili

Sonnabend Gallery

Eight square iron poles by Alain Kirili stand in the gallery. They are not ordered as a group nor do they conform to any one scale. Two tower above us; the rest stand below. The two tall ones, bare but for a notch near the top, are like markers with nothing to mark. Set on bases—residual pedestals—they are indirectly related to public sculpture, sculpture that commemorates a historically-important person or place. And yet the poles refer to nothing—they seem as pure and homeless as any modern sculpture.

If the tall poles are markers without sites, the short ones are figures without human form. However, just as sites are implied by the bases on which the tall poles sit, the human body is suggested by the curves and clefts of the short poles. This is not pure sculpture so much as sculpture pared of texture and context—they are naked, not nude. But the reduction has its own meaning. Just as the siteless poles remind us that to be modern is to be homeless, the figureless poles remind us that to be modern is to be one-dimensional, not rounded.

If this seems cliched, perhaps it is. The poles do seem like Giacomettis updated by a Minimalist—existential figures now stripped of all references—social, historical, even human. But this is not quite what Kirili has in mind. He seems interested less in pure form than in primal image: Kirili looks for the return, through the unconscious, of the primitive. It lives on, however chastened, and perhaps in sculpture he sees a medium for it. Given our mad modern rationality, its representation must be oblique—as it is here, in the vague marks and lost signs evident in the sculpture.

Much sculpture today is quasi-archaeological: instant artifacts made to order. As Carrie Rickey notes, this is a style, one that tricks us: we assimilate the work culturally because we think we already have. As patrons of the primitive, we want to preserve; amateur archaeologists all, we want to give back lost meaning. Kirili does not package the primitive in this sort of way, or rely on such bogus mystification. His concern here is serious: namely, to examine how the primitive—the forgotten, the repressed—returns, in our life and art, to question us. Thus the contradictory character of these sculptures—they seem at once modern and primitive, ahistorical and prehistoric, bare of references and all evocative. The problem is, of course, that this is an effect, i.e., it is somewhat récherché, contrived.

Hal Foster