Chicago

Barry Flanagan

Gray

Barry Flanagan’s sculptural variations on the theme of the hare are as fecund as the symbolic equivalents this animal has evoked in images and literature since the Middle Ages. Flanagan’s contributions to the artistic dossier on the trickster rabbit run the gamut here from the droopy but statuesque Large Boxing Hare on Anvil, 1984, to the highlight of the show, Baby Elephant, 1984, which combines the speediest hare in the West poised on the head of its polar opposite—the solid, balanced elephant. In medieval imagery, the rabbit is seen as the furry beast of Venus. The animal’s overtly sexual suggestiveness is underscored in Flanagan’s mounting of hares with open bells, crescent moon, and vessels whose open forms suggest female equivalents. In one dramatic piece, like a fantasy tableau of a George Stubbs painting, an expressionistically modeled cougar rears up on the back of a serene life-sized horse; since this green-patined horse is a close relative of those perfect creatures on the Basilica of San Marco in Venice, the cougar is probably the savage beast threatening civilization. But the tense dichotomy that Flanagan seems to desire is better represented in the pairings of the liquid, fluid hare with the elephant, the least sexual of animals. Stoic, the baby elephant is the classic counterpoint or literally the support for the hare, who is wired and ready to go with bronze limbs that appear at once as sinews and as coils of clay.

Before turning to these traditional materials and techniques in the ’70s, Flanagan had explored the properties and signifying capacities of other materials. Beginning in the ’60s with casual arrangements of lumpy sand-filled bags which appeared almost untouched by artistic intervention, he then moved to ceramic clumps and to erotic clefts carved in stone. His interest in piles, heaps, and ropes can still be seen in the bronzes which shift back and forth between figuration and snaillike spiral mounds that are close to the clay coils from which they are built, in a derivation of a basic pot-making process. The psychological and sensual pleasures of squeezing and pulling are perfectly reproduced in both types of bronzes; in place of the signature on the painting one can see and feel the hand of the sculptor as he models and animates his material.

Less overdetermined than the animal stories, but also dependent on fairly obvious dichotomies, are a group of simple linear “pilgrims,” again mounted on oversized solid anvils. These works relate to a small 1981 piece called The Long Man of Wilmington, whose linear openwork figure is formed from the cup, risers, and runners used in the casting process. This work completes the circle to total formalist self-referentiality. The process of artifice is revealed and even insisted upon as it is transformed into subject matter. Never do the pairings in the piece, no matter how dissimilar or incompatible, become jarring or discordant; although opposed, they are never unsuitable.

This unerring sense of good taste almost freezes the show into elegant, traditional, and very luxurious decoration. (A unicorn in gold invokes too powerful a cliché for even Flanagan to parody.) What saves it is the hare. Albeit a surrogate for the human figure and certainly referring to Matisse’s La Serpentine, 1909, it is a creature both mocked and mocker, trickster and tricked; like the roadrunner whose gesture it emulates, it is always elusive, no matter how rich its patina, expensive its materials, or upright its pose.

Judith Russi Kirshner