Fort Worth

Harry Geffert

Fort Worth Contemporary Arts_the ART GALLERIES at TCU

At age 52, Harry Geffen is a modern-day Pre-Raphaelite, although he began his career some 20 years ago as a Modernist abstract sculptor. Today, working exclusively in bronze, his sculptures illustrate moralizing symbolism through detailed realism. The centerpiece of this show, The Creation of Eve’s Consciousness, 1985–86, was a large multileveled sculpture dominated by a life-sized man and woman; this piece, along with a group of smaller works (mostly excerpted vignettes), revealed Geffert to be both reactionary and visionary. Working in a traditional medium and using straightforward metaphors, he has created a composition with a unique poetic structure and content.

A complex symbolic narrative, The Creation of Eve’s Consciousness has a Gulliver’s Travels quality; the two large figures are surrounded by multiple tiny hand-rendered figures, most of them approximately 5 or 6 inches tall, and cast with almost the same degree of realism as the big figures. Like chapters or subplots in a novel, the small elements surround the main framework in separate scenes. But Geffert has not kept them entirely distinct; though many seem in a separate world, some climb up and around the frame into the world of the life-sized characters.

Geffen’s dual-scale conception has two effects: first, it reinforces the work’s three-dimensionality, forcing the viewer to take the time and effort to move around the sculpture and see it in the round. Second, the two scales obviate the tension between the work’s literal and allegorical bases. Because two of the figures are life-sized, one relates to the sculpture as a real contemporary story. But the Lilliputian elements reinforce the visionary qualities of Geffen’s world, representing both the artist’s art and artifice.

In fact, Geffen overlaps autobiography with invention. The work’s story is about a love affair between a young man and woman; the two reach toward one another in a gesture drawn from the gesture of Adam reaching toward God in Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling. The small-scale elements reflect on the romantic tension between the large figures while still maintaining a separate identity. The young woman, for example, is clearly the main character; she appears in almost every section of the work, although in the smaller elements her partner is replaced by Geffert’s self-portrait. Like flashbacks in a movie, these miniscenes develop a series of changing relationships between the artist and his model; she is shown running down a hill toward his image personified as a heroic figure driving a Roman chariot (using an Eadweard Muybridge device, the woman’s movement is implied by showing her in a sequence of three views). She is shown dancing on an architectural framework while Geffert, in his artist role, pulls a mold off a casting. And she is shown sitting on a bed with her young lover while Geffen, hidden by a blanket, sleeps beside her. Other vignettes include eggs (one with a baby emerging), falling through chimneys, some specific architectural details taken from Geffert’s home outside Fort Worth, as well as some totally invented and fabricated plants.

Geffen does not hide the fact that the piece is largely based on specific, real personal relations. Even if you aren’t personally acquainted with the artist or his model, obvious hints indicate that the woman represents someone who has played a large role in his life. By casting himself alternately as hero, lover, rescuer, and innocent bystander, he underlines the personal even as he includes biblical, mythic, and art-historical references. This is Geffert’s love story, but it’s also, as the title indicates, a Garden of Eden after the Fall—Eve’s eyes are open; wide awake, she tests her charms.

The technical complexity and narrative quality of Geffert’s three-dimensional assemblage may be reminiscent of Edward Kienholz, but Geffert’s uniform use of bronze and his romantic tone make him seem more Victorian than modern, a sensibility underlined by some mechanical playfulness within the work—some of the parts wind up and move, making it seem like an antique toy. But the old-fashioned character of Geffen’s style does not diminish the work; instead, it makes it even more refreshing.

Susan Freudenheim