New York

Barry Flanagan

Pace Gallery

It’s as if there were two shows of Barry Flanagan’s sculptures here: one a bestiary, the other abstract. In the first we are obviously in the realm of myth: the gilding tips us off, as does the emblem of the unicorn. In the second we are in the realm, one might say, of (natural) science, since the overwhelming number of these abstractions are travertine-marble carvings which resemble artifacts such as bleaching bones or worn carapaces, and which are numbered like so many inventoried fossils or geological samples.

If in the first arena there are elements faerie, in the sense of having once existed but now vanished—as for instance is the case with the elephant, a species of which once flourished in Flanagan’s home base, England—in the second we might be looking at the real and only verifiable traces of historic creatures. One is recorded in the mind and so lifted up on pedestals, the other recorded in the earth: all the marble pieces are truly beached; inert, they lie close to the ground. There’s an antiphony of imagination versus sensation; wit and fable in the animal works, clefts and lobes in the carvings.

Categories shift, however. The bestiary shuttles back and forth in time, from the ancient civilizations of maybe China or Troy to the Middle Ages to the present. One of the attempts Flanagan seems to be making is the provision of a contemporary mythic beast. His choice, echoing Mary Beth Edelson’s and Jonathan Borofsky’s, is the rabbit. The preeminence of the hare is a belated recording of a shift in cultural expectations. In Flanagan’s view, the rabbit has become the icon of courageous guardianship to supplant the lion or the griffin: instead of a claw in Ball and Claw, 1981, we have the full figure of the leporid curving around a nonexistent sphere. It’s feisty, whether posed like a pugnacious kangaroo or repeated in karate stance on a candelabra, where its flamelike positioning underscores its quickness and changeability. It’s always silly, but, in the now familiar series of leaping hares, ultimately triumphant. It will never be set adrift on a sea of troubles, like the poor chick in The Lack of Civility, 1982. Too smart, too fast.

More transgressions. The beast invades two of the otherwise nonrepresentational carvings in the ever-so-barely suggested form of a seal or sea lion (upper half, Carving No. 1, 1982; flipper half, Carving No. 6A, 1982), which as an amphibious mammal could be said to contradict the inertness of the stone pieces. Two of the nonfigurative bronzes violate the dichotomy between myth and science in their hints of alchemy, the mythical science. Vessel (in Memoriam) and The Long Man of Wilmington, both 1980, set up the crucible/still symbiosis of an alembic. Bronze may be Flanagan’s alkahest or universal solvent, the adoption of rabbit qualities his panacea or universal remedy.

As if all this were not enough, there seems to be a scansion of 20th-century sculpture in the work, traversing all the above boundaries. One can see this as a nonjudgmental litany. In addition to stone-carving there are explicit references to pouring (and therefore to casting) in Vessel (in Memoriam), and implicit ones to forging in the anvillike shape of the same piece (a shape repeated in The Lack of Civility). There’s the welding of the open form in The Long Man of Wilmington that deliberately conjures up David Smith and Julio González. Sol LeWitt’s open cubes form the base of Soprano, 1981, and the pyramid of Jackie Ferrara supports Large Leaping Hare, 1982. Just possibly there’s a good-natured swipe at the “form is function” school in the missing ball of Ball and Claw. Conversely, one can see the work as an embattled partisanship, imagining a subtext in which Flanagan’s rabbit, and the molten process he represents (as a creature of bronze), fight Henry Moore’s slow, biomorphic carving, aptly represented by a lumbering creature like the seal in a pastiche of the fable of the tortoise and the hare.

In all this mercurial lightfootedness, Flanagan seems true to his model. The question is how to render a possibly fictitious unity to the account. Having deployed all these sculptural period appointments irreverently, as bases, for instance, Flanagan shows how context makes meaning. So an abstract such as this might emerge: the components of myth are negotiable; the sacred cow of today could be the footstool for tomorrow’s archaeologist.

Jeanne Silverthorne