Harold Tovish

Alpha Gallery

Harold Tovish is considered one of Boston’s most accomplished sculptors, yet this was his first major gallery exhibition in 13 years. Certain highly gifted postwar sculptors, among them Tovish, found themselves in a historical predicament mistakenly interpreted as a failure of talent. Trained in an academic figurative mode, they were mismatched with an art world hostile to naturalistic realism. The figure’s status throughout the ’50s, ’60s, and early ’70s reads like a premature obituary: challenged by Abstract Expressionism, cynically re-appropriated in Pop art, and negated by Minimalism and Conceptualism, it was largely defined by its absence.

Tovish has employed a number of strategic responses in an attempt to reintegrate the figure into modern sculpture, only recently, at age 64, achieving a viable synthesis, a riveting body of work in which the figure acts as an authentic vehicle for contemporary anxiety. Bypassing the torrid histrionics of neo-Expressionism, Tovish has developed a refined, even frigid Weltanschauung, a polished angst distilled in a technological age, a sci-fi world that is no longer futuristic. Here, violence is neither messy nor crude; undesirables are eliminated, vaporized in the muted parameters of a black box, where untold horrors occur and recur with predictable regularity. The ultimate in technological violence is, of course, nuclear annihilation; it is our helplessness in the face of this terror (and, Tovish suggests, our complicity) that fills us with inchoate dread.

The direct expression of this idea is found in Witness, 1985, a large black wooden box with a 10-by-10-inch window at eye level; inside it, a bound figure contorts in agony, reflected ad infinitum by two opposing one-way mirrors. The only finite image is that of the viewer, the implicit witness to the horrors of torture and imprisonment, 20th-century maladies so ubiquitous they can only be represented by the infinite. Downfall, 1984, and Corridor, 1985, also disorient through ingenious mirror placement. Downfall appears to be a circular glass-topped table; peering through that looking glass plunges the viewer into a vertigo of unending depth in which cast-epoxy heads encased in epoxy orbs (a favorite Tovish motif) appear to fall through infinite black space. While Witness wrenches and Downfall disorients, Corridor induces a twilight-zone anxiety In this work, the black box encloses the infinitely reflecting, infinitely banal image of a motel hallway, a nightmarish stretch of civilization’s dubious achievements, complete with the modern era’s ultimate exhortation to isolation: “Do not disturb.”

The logical extension of this admonition is found in Region of Ice, 1984. Sunk in a circular mound of cracked glass spread on a black Formica platform lit from below, an epoxy globe encasing a mask of the sculptor’s face suffers an eerie, desolate fate. This apocalyptic Rip Van Winkle is a chilling allusion to the artist’s blocked creativity as well as to the individual’s inability to function in a technocratic society Yet pure pessimism is hardly triumphant, for in his compelling portrayal of the parallel crises of figurative sculpture and contemporary alienation, Tovish has transcended their paralytic confines.

Nancy Stapen