San Francisco

William Tucker

Gallery Paule Anglim

William Tucker’s recent sculptures are stark, heavy, freestanding cast-bronze chunks, each with a mutable image. As you move around them, tracking successive profile views, their roughly modeled masses slip from one directional emphasis to another, from flexing, truncated anatomical hints to broadly sloping topographic sensations, and back again. Such perceptual episodes modify and hide one another. Meanwhile, the monolithic shape that is their integer stays unperturbed, though constantly elusive, and the big abstract scale is consistent throughout. Then there is the sculptures’ gravitational pull, the way they compel you—imaginatively, bodily—to experience them up close. Their energies are not projective so much as contagious. Face to face with these things, you get an inkling of the sculptor’s impetuousness, like that of a rock-climber, in scrambling together their plaster prototypes.

Writers on Tucker’s work have regularly pointed out the similarity between his conversion from open Minimalist forms to these more traditional-seeming bronzes and Philip Guston’s move, in his paintings of the late ’60s, to a recognizable imagery. But Tucker’s casts most resemble the ink drawings Guston was making in the early ’60s, with their slow accumulations of line and their refusal (often by a saving twist of the quill) of any distinct mimesis. Like Guston, Tucker is a connoisseur of catastrophe. His densely encrusted objects are records—sites, really—of fundamental, differentiating urgencies. Like the pre-Olympian deities of unstable aspect from whom many of them derive their names, they make sense as the metaphoric evidence of forces in flux, gists of crude matter and desire rather than personifications of a fixed order of being.

Tucker locates the motions and tensions and voluble vortices—the sheer geologic incipience—implicit in the archaic creation myths. This is no mere archaicizing trick: he’s not redoing Stonehenge or the Parthenon. The newest and smallest of his pieces shown here, Daktyl III, 1986–88, is also the most quintessential: a stumpy, twisty, beanlike outcropping that seems to hoist itself at one extreme in a barely achieved calisthenic flourish.

Rather than presenting an image of what it means to be human, Tucker’s work is a stab at showing the formative states of physical matter that impinge on all of life, and for which the human body, with its self-consciousness, is a fair registration. In 1977, the artist wrote, “The statue is a thing set upright: it stands against gravity and against sight.” By that definition, Tucker’s figures assert a statuary compressed by its own isolate exposure and ever-unslackening battles over leverage and pitch. The biggest Ouranos and Tethys, both 1985, look most distinct at the sliced nether edges where their trunks stamp themselves inevitably flush to the gallery floor. (The smaller works placed on pedestal cubes looked relatively stranded in their exertions.) All core and no appendages, these sculptures grind up the immediate space as if from below and within, like the first rumblings of a thunderclap, less a signal of pride than of necessitous volition.

Bill Berkson