New York

Judith Shea

Willard Gallery

Judith Shea offers the most exciting and significant sculptural vision of the figure seen in New York this season. Her latest works are capable of arousing the deepest feelings in their audience. Although best known for her pioneering achievements in bridging the gap between art and fashion, Shea’s current pieces are very much in the sculptural mainstream. Remaining true to her distinctive way of seeing, she continues to make forms related to clothing, and to turn toward personal objectives the value of clothes as cultural signs; however, her means and ends are directed to the major challenge of making sculpture that both fits into the grand figurative tradition and is meaningful for these times.

It’s hardly exaggeration to claim that no one else is doing sculpture like Shea’s. We instantly recognize the 3-dimensional aluminum shape of Shelf Piece, 1984, for example, as a tight-fitting dress with sleeves. Presented face down and stretched out on a natural-wood shelf, the dress “poses” in a position that brings to mind the classical Greek pedimental sculptures whose figures were specifically designed to fit harmoniously with their supports. The contrast between the color and texture of the pine of Shea’s shelf and the stony patina of the aluminum intensifies the work’s pictorial qualities. This in turn heightens our consciousness of the weight and volume of the sculpture, encouraging the audience to perceive, imagine, and viscerally sense the strong human presence that hovers in the form.

Similar sensations are evoked by the show’s single seated figure, Sphinx Released, 1984, a long sheathlike bronze gown whose shape suggests the torso it seems to contain. One shoulder is higher than the other, and this slightly twisted pose helps to individuate the figure, to suggest a startling humanity. Certain details bring to mind the seated men and women in ancient Egyptian art—the subtle crease at the gown’s knees, and the symmetrically disposed blockiness of the overall mass. But though Shea encourages such historical associations, she also underscores the modernity of her sculpture by seating it on a contemporary-style chair of oak, a material familiar in modern furniture.

Some sculptures contain two figures, and put human relationships boldly at issue. Shea’s sense of humor is clear in the floor piece Acting Out, 1984, in which a sexual encounter is playfully suggested by an iron pair of short pants shown straddling the upper portion of a bronze dress. But in the bronze floor sculpture For Mom, 1984, Shea’s communication of emotively charged content achieves a powerful spiritual dimension. The work speaks poignantly of the primal bond between mother and child, of their mutual love, mutual needs, and mutual fears of loss. A small dress shape leans against a larger form evoking a lower torso and lap hunching protectively around it. The empathic appeal of this sculpture issues from the gestures of the suggested but absent figures—the open, vulnerable pose of the baby, her arms reaching out, and the supportive posture and protective mass of the mother.

Ronny Cohen