New York

Alain Kirili

Sonnabend Gallery

Alain Kirili’s “subject matter” is the double bind, achieved through the single bend. Essentially an ironsmith, Kirili bends his metal—with a vigor which leaves a hollow, and which in retrospect is the most exciting part of the work after the experience of the density of the iron—at what turns out to be the top or “head” of his piece. The piece peaks in the bend, which gives it a Giacometti-like figural dimension, the anonymous look of a totem from an unrecognizable culture. But Kirili’s “figures” do not locate in the empty space of a mournful European square—are not mired in their privacy while moving in public space. Also, and this is the key novelty of the show, many of the figures join at the base. This pedestal, in fact—the horizontal, usually de-emphasized in Kirili’s work, even when, as in one installation here, it hugs the ground—is the main point of the show. The double bind is that one figure will have a foot in different camps. Sometimes one foot will be on the floor while the other is pedestaled, and sometimes each foot will have a pedestal which it will share with a figure that has both feet on that pedestal. This is all very formal, even elegant, but the contradictions generated don’t seem to have much point beyond their formality. Certainly the Giacometti point is lost, for however forged with Hephaestusian fury these figures are, they are destined for the staid atmosphere of the gallery. They have the truncated look of memorials to pure mystery, to the unknown as such, but this finally seems only another way of punctuating the gallery’s emptiness. Also, they are for me too much like a neo-primitivist art that could not make up its mind how raw it wanted to be. The metal and the bend are inherently raw, but the placement of the figures is more catchy than cunning, tending to rhyme the figure, as if that could, if not refine it, at least confirm its density.

The one piece I did like, which seemed to me to have successfully resolved the contradictions—between raw and cooked metal, horizontal and vertical, thick and thin—is Longevity, 1980. Kirili stretches the pedestal into an 11-foot length of cleanly cut steel, at one end of which he shrinks his figure, compressing it entirely into the tight bend so that it doubles over; under it and under the horizontal metal beam he puts another piece of metal. The piece doesn’t try too hard to make overtures to the symbolic, as Kirili’s more obviously totemic figures do, but states itself and stops short of certifying itself with “depth.” Kirili has done this once before, brilliantly, in an earlier installation (“Commandments”), where a number of works almost add up to a cabalistic portent of profundity but remain insular presences, powerfully physical. In that case, as in that of Longevity, Kirili drops the height of his figures and increases the spread of the work as a whole, achieving a new concentration by making it squat, as it were, while retaining a sense of it as inhabiting a field. This gets rid of the stagey dimension to the figures and reminds us of one of the things sculpture is about—proxemics, and the way bodies, in being self-enclosing, enclose the space that immediately surrounds them, and struggle to extend that realm of immediacy.

Donald B. Kuspit