New York

Simon Frost/Bura Sculpture

It seems perhaps an odd coupling at first: a grand display of third- to tenth-century terra-cotta funerary sculptures from the West African burial ground Bura-Asinda-Sikka; and Simon Frost’s eloquently delicate drawings, most in graphite, others in gouache, ink, and watercolor, all from the ’90s. Many of the hollow sculptures are conspicuously phallic, while others are potlike urns. Some are tall and topped with small heads, which gives them the peculiar look of late Giacomettis. The receptacles were found buried with their openings facing down, ostensibly filled with the deceased’s possessions, teeth, and a few key bones.

So how do Frost’s nonfigurative drawings and the implicitly figurative Bura sculptures relate? Through the latter’s surfaces, which are so elaborately and minutely detailed that they seem like finely incised skin that has healed in a raised inscription of scar tissue. Likewise, the stippling in Frost’s Untitled #1, 1992, seems to puncture the surface of the paper even as it forms a mosaic of minute tesserae, a swirling, cosmic vortex with a dense center. More explicitly, the murky reddish grid of Untitled #10, 1995, directly reflects similar motifs on several of the Bura sculptures and shares their terra-cotta color.

The exhibition, then, seems to highlight formal resemblances, but the relationship between the sculpture and the drawings is much more complex. The obsessively repeated marks in Frost’s labor-intensive drawings—which take months, sometimes more than a year to make—seem to form a clear, delimited pattern. But it begins to disintegrate even as it is constructed; in Untitled #18, 1998, the circular markings are neatly arranged in a grid but progressively overlap until the pattern becomes chaotically dense and finally falls away into the oblivion of the empty surface. Nothingness—“absence,” for the theoretically correct—triumphs. Thus, however indirectly, Frost’s works evoke death, which gives them an inner relationship to the Bura sculpture.

Indeed, the bodies of work are perfect expressive twins. The drawings are as ceremonial and fatalistic as the sculpture, both in their ritual of repetitive surface gestures—their construction of homogeneity out of seemingly heterogeneous details—and in the inner sublimity of their scale, which establishes a contrast between intimate touches and the grand impersonal space of the grid they compose. Rudolf Arnheim has written that the grid is an entropic form. If uniformity and explosiveness are equally entropic, as Arnheim claims, then the apocalyptic aura of Frost’s drawings further confirms their subliminal fascination with death—the ultimate entropic state.

Donald Kuspit