New York

Kevin Francis Gray, Seated Nude, 2017, Carrara marble, 43 3/8 × 48 1/8 × 59 1/2".

Kevin Francis Gray, Seated Nude, 2017, Carrara marble, 43 3/8 × 48 1/8 × 59 1/2".

Kevin Francis Gray

Pace | 537 West 24th Street

Kevin Francis Gray, Seated Nude, 2017, Carrara marble, 43 3/8 × 48 1/8 × 59 1/2".

The Irish artist Kevin Francis Gray is a master carver of marble in the grand tradition of Michelangelo, Antonio Canova, Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux, and Rodin, among other great masters of that material—and what a welcome wonder to encounter such durable, “classically” inspired sculptures. This is especially true given the abiding proclivities of contemporary practice toward the provisional—the unfinished and the ephemeral. It is also a pleasure to see an artist so fully committed to the art of the past: Time moves faster today than it used to, the modern world being more future oriented, continually bombarding us with the next new medium, style, or “sensation.”

Simply by virtue of their apparent permanence—certainly given the socially embedded significance of the Carrara marble from which they are carved—Gray’s sculptures are anti-modern, yet they are not without their modern aspects. In fact, they are a peculiar hybrid of the classical and the modern: to my eye a brilliant, uncanny reconciliation of seeming opposites. They bring to mind Medardo Rosso’s Post-Impressionist “melting sculptures”; the absurd, grotesque distortions of Surrealism; and, less obviously, the self-dramatizing rippling quality of painterliness at its most intensely, randomly, and aggressively expressionist. Indeed, Gray’s sculptures—three nudes and four busts—are strikingly, morbidly molten; the figures seem to be decaying, even collapsing, their flesh dissolving and mangled. Still, they defiantly hold their own: See, for example, the intimidating face of Hades’ Head, 2016. The subject’s eyes, and the blinded eyes of the Cave Girl, 2017, stare us down even as they penetrate into us. Salamander, 2017, meanwhile, is nearly abstract. The nudes—Reclining Nude I, 2016, Reclining Nude II, 2017, and Seated Nude, 2017—hold their heads high while their bodies let them down.

With these works, Gray makes the familiarly human strange, revealing an anti-humanistic, anti-idealistic, anticlassical thrust to his art. This remains true in spite of the humanistic and idealistic implications of “classical” subject matter and classical material—marble is an ideal substance, because of its luminosity and apparent solidity, though it is easy to carve, which is one reason it was used extensively in antiquity. Thanks to marble’s low index of refraction, light can penetrate several millimeters beneath its surface; this gives the stone its fabled “waxy” look, making it seem inwardly alive, breathing life into an otherwise dead form. Gray’s art perversely exploits this contradiction: Though his marble is pure white and luminous, he uses it to convey the saturnine, nightmarish, gruesome underside of human existence, a condition signaled, especially, by the devilishly dark uncut portion of the marble that fronts the base of Hades’ Head. The works are a contradiction in terms—a diabolical fusion of unconscious feeling and self-conscious craft.

Donald Kuspit