Tom Czarnopys

The finest moment one has with a sculpture by Tom Czarnopys is almost invariably the first. There is drama in that initial encounter, a sense of shock and a pang of pleasure in confronting work with such bravura presence, in perceiving Czarnopys’ consummate craftsmanship, in enjoying the effects that he realizes. For that special frame of time, these technical wonders seem to breathe with life, magically forestalling all questions of content or intent.

Czarnopys’ sculptures are usually made by taking a body mold of part or all of a human model—often himself—and making a cast from that mold in plaster or polyester resin. Over this base the artist painstakingly and meticulously adheres a new skin of tree bark, occasionally adding moss, branches, leaves, wood, or roots. (More recent work has been cast and painted to look as if it were covered in bark.) This creates objects that seem to be in a state of metamorphosis, occupying a zone between the laws of nature and the dreams of humankind. Trees anthropomorphize into humans, and humans suffer a kind of forestization.

These sculptures evoke the hallowed and mythic sanctums of the primeval forest, and the installation of eight of Czarnopys’ works here emphasized the works’ mysterious qualities. A narrow gallery in the museum was painted a dusky brown and each piece was theatrically lit by dimmed spotlights. This caused the installation to unfold like the display of artifacts in a museum of natural history, also giving it a kind of spook-house or carnival effect that was certainly dramatic. This effort to amplify and orchestrate the reception of these sculptures was a clever tactic, for it is presence above all else that the work possesses, an eerie quality of transubstantiation.

Although sometimes sensitive to the symbiosis of nurture and nature, Czarnopys’ creations more regularly manifest traditional iconographic themes drawn from religious and mythological sources. They rather clearly acknowledge their debt to the history of Western figural art, a history Czarnopys does not challenge or transcend. After its initial impact, Untitled (St. Sebastian), 1984, is little more than Mantegna in bark. Pietà, 1988, for which the artist used his more recent casting method, consists of a form spiraling upward—now tree, then torso, then tree again—that boldly quotes from Bernini’s Apollo and Daphne, 1622–24, modifying its model only in its introduction of real rather than sculpted foliage. The figural realism established by the use of body casts (which is at the heart of Czarnopys’ art) is, in these pieces, employed to ends that are surprisingly conservative and academic. It is as if at the heart of nature, in the very center of the dark wood, there were no more to be found than the tired traditions of Western culture. Technical proficiency and theatrical effects aside, the work begins increasingly to seem like a hollow matter.

James Yood