New York

Sean Landers

The plaster casts Sean Landers uses in his works are cheap copies, commercial reproductions of famous or popular sculptures sold as bookends or piano-top knickknacks. The head of the great Laocoön appears in one, a Roman sculpture of Agrippa in another, and there are portraits of Shakespeare, of Marie Antoinette, of Pan, and of an anonymous French aristocrat. Landers takes the casts, puts them in deep cylinders, and submerges them in a translucent brown polyester resin. The block that emerges is then placed on a pedestal of Landers’ own making.

Landers seems to be fascinated the way contexts affect our appreciation of artifacts. In an earlier work (Petra, 1988), he took a cheap garden sculpture and monumentalized it by placing it atop a small mountain he had made out of concrete and wood. In this case, the staged context is not just physical, but temporal; the amber color of the resin makes the objects look like mysterious relics, ancient artifacts preserved in the rubble of Pompeii, or embalmed organs in jars on a doctor’s shelf. Temperature variations in the cylinders during the casting have resulted in cracks through the resin, some of them planned by the artist, others simply allowed. They give the pieces an air of great age, as if it were time rather than deliberation that had damaged them, and they make the faces below difficult to read, helping to hide the poverty of the reproductions. But the resin is clearly synthetic, and the pieces are by no means as venerable as they initially appear.

The work has an effect much like that of Marcel Duchamp’s L. H. O. O. Q., 1919, a cheap reproduction of the Mona Lisa which, by the penciled-in addition of a mustache and through Duchamp’s ontological magic, becomes an artwork. The casts Landers uses are also taken from previously articulated visions, some of them magnificent. So they have some of the form of the originals, albeit much deteriorated and several generations removed. By sinking the reproductions in an obscuring medium Landers makes them intriguing again.

But despite the similarities, the casts are more than duplications of Duchamp’s original act. Duchamp stoops to conquer: L. H. O. O. Q. defaces the reproduction from which it is made. But Landers’ rescues his work: the particular way in which the copies are transformed from art to gewgaws to art again allows the sculptures that result to have qualities of their own. The agonized face of Laocoön, for example, seems to be a response to his being embalmed, and the head of Marie Antoinette is pathetically immobilized. There is great drama in the sight of these familiar faces, submerged in their synthetic tombs, and in the eerie grandeur of their presentation.

James Lewis