New York — Sleep and its images are the subjects of a remarkable introductory exhibition of terra-cotta sculptures by the French artist Georges Jeanclos at the Forum Gallery here.
These very small figures, sleeping, falling asleep, or just awakening, and wrapped or bundled in folds of cloth,constitute this artist's first New York showing.
What makes these figures so special is that they reflect a creative sensibility striking out on its own without concern for what else is happeniong in the art world -- and coming up with an imagery that is at the same time intensely private and profoundly universal.
They are also special because their effectiveness derives totally from talent and imagination, not from any stylistic affiliation with a school or formal theory.
Although the art world is more tolerant today, we still tend to be suspicious of the artist who strikes off completely on his own. This is partly because of our inordinate respect for the art historians who determine what is in line for art-historical legitimacy, and partly to our insecurity in accepting art that claims little or no artistic pedigree.
We feel secure in approving or purchasing art that is firmly embedded in art history, or which stands a good chance of starting a new trend and thus entering the history books. But we do not feel secure with art that stands alone, that draws something from here and something else from there, but which is essentially at a tangent from the major movements of the day. And this can apply even when our initial reactions to the work are favorable.
I felt it myself while viewing this show. "I like it," I thought, "but where does it belong?"
Yet this kind of thinking causes us to study everything about the work except the work itself. We suspend our spontaneous reactions and instead consider the work's stylistic derivations or its similarity to critically acceptable art, and conversely we overlook its possible resemblance to art deemed unworthy of serious attention.
Before we know it, we have amassed such overwhelming evidence against the work -- on the basis of relatively superficial considerations -- that it has little or no chance to speak for itself.
Jeanclos's art does speak for itself with great conviction and clarity. It may only speak in a minor voice, and without the monumental or innovative force of a Moore, Calder, Smith, rickey, or Caro, but it makes its point simply and effectively nevertheless.
And what it says has less to do with formal matters than with matters of philosophical speculation,sentiment, and sensibility, qualities very sujspect in art today. Rightly so, I might add, since they have jointly contributed to the downfall of more art since the days of the Pre-Raphaelites than almost anything else.
But with Jeanclos, these qualities are directed at particularly meaningful and memorable goals.
What strikes us first about these figures is their subtle aura of melancholy and vulnerability, their fragile delicacy. They are exquisite, both in mood and in execution, and remind us vaguely of Victorian figurines and statuettes. We sense immediately that they were conceived to give form to gentle feelings, longings, and moods, and that the makiong of them was a true act of creative love -- not only for their subject, but also for the lovely things clay can do in the proper hands.
More than anything else, these slumbering and partly awakened figures remind us of human life, dormant and wrapped in protective layers of cloth, waiting for the proper moment to re-enter wakefulness and activity. They are like seeds about to burst into life: Here we see a hand emerging, there to top of a head and a nose, over there a foot.In others, sleep is tentatively being tossed aside as though it were only a coverlet; in others, the figures have managed to sit up but are still more than half asleep. In still others,hands begin to twist and turn, begin to reach out for solid substance, for something to do.
As I walked around and among these figures, it gradually dawned on me that it was not sleep that was the real subject of these works, but human consciousness, human strugglings for increased awareness of life. That their gentle aura of melancholy, their brooding acknowledgment of the power of sleep, their signs of inner battles and inner acceptances, were actually metaphors for mankind's continuing conflict between reluctance to awaken fully to his potential and his deep desire to do so.
With that in mind, I studied the figures again, trying to feel what the artist had felt while he focused all his skills and care upon modeling these exquisite folds of cloth, these marvelous wrinkles, and these delightful glimpses of human foreheads, ears, fingers, and toes.
And it made sense to me that my responses and interpretation were viable ones , that they represented some portion at least of the complexities of these gentle works of art. While these works by no means illustratedm these notions of mine, They did, at least, suggest them.
As I felt this exhibition I thought, "What a pity that we of this century, in our passion and hurry to 'correct' the excesses of 19th-century academic art and of Victorian sensibility, also dismissed somje of the better things, attitudes, and ideals that those times had evolved."
The art of Georges Jeanclos, while by no means major or historically important, is exquisitely true, and one hopes it will help serve as a countercorrection to some of ourm "modern" excesses and lapses in judgment.
This exhibition at the Forum Gallery will remain on view through Oct. 30.