New York

Marc Quinn

Mary Boone Gallery | Uptown

Marc Quinn is still best known for his deliciously sick “Sensation”-era shock piece Self, 1991, a cast of his head in his own deep-frozen blood. In a suite of recent bronze sculptures exhibited at Mary Boone Gallery—a selection from a series first seen at Dublin’s Irish Museum of Modern Art last summer—Quinn has fine-tuned the balance of pathos and revulsion to which his career has thus far been dedicated.

Viewers in New York were greeted by Seated Figure (Bull), 2004. Raised on a white plinth and rearing to a height of almost six feet, attenuated limbs spread to expose the yawning void where guts had been, this black-patinated bronze cast of a commercially slaughtered bull was the faceless sentry to a roomful of nightmare animals. Borrowing the poses of classical sculpture and the materials and realism of Rodin, Quinn places the idealized human form on the chopping block, replacing it with a hunk of meat. He retains the body’s spiritual aspect but makes it ghoulish, accompanying a brutish and brutalized form.

Many of these sculptures invite religious readings. The monumental Standing Figure (Beef), 2004, raises a foreleg as if in benediction, long flaps of cast, serrated belly hanging open like a monk’s robes. And the horrific pietà Mother and Child (Rabbit and Lamb), 2004, in which a wiry rabbit, facing sideways, is affixed to the breast of its large, mismatched “parent,” mocks the conventional depiction of the holy birth and family. In confronting the existential illogic inherent in the unity of spirit and flesh, these works recall Francis Bacon’s tortured Crucifixion studies.

Quinn’s sculptures bear witness to the violence and indignity of the big business of meat, but this strong if uncomplicated message is only the beginning. Rendered in bronze, the carcasses lose immediacy, surrendering the sense of shock on which the artist has tended to rely. Here he allows us to maintain a safe distance from the slaughtered creature, presenting not the real thing but merely a cold substitute for flesh—evidence of absence in durable bronze. The viewer is thus torn between the identification invited by the standing and reclining forms and the alienation effected by their intimations of mortality; between the eviscerated animal and the silent, black material used to represent it, as different from living tissue as can be.

Complicating this struggle—which, after all, might also be considered characteristic of the viewing of classical sculpture—is the object’s state of having been disassembled, rummaged through, emptied. This work’s opposition to classicism, which aims to present an idealized whole, is thus complete. Quinn’s stately abominations are totems of disfigurement, of the degradation of the flesh, of the absence of structure and meaning. They also represent the logical outcome of classical sculpture’s pairing of heroic figure and wild animal; here the human’s triumph over nature is expressed as the systematized subjugation of the animal kingdom.

Like Hans Bellmer’s mutated dolls, these objects are surreal and grotesque, at once repulsive and inviting, both as quasi-human figures and as perversely satisfying nonhuman horrors. They force us to recognize them as bodies as well as hunks of bronze—yet what they reflect back at us is not simply spiritedness or otherness but a synthesis that defies categorization and disturbs the gut and the mind. At a moment when government-sanctioned acts of torture have made it to the front page, these flayed forms feel pointedly contemporary—for their evocation not of the humiliated victims but of the monstrous perpetrators.

Nell McClister