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Humans are naturally narcissistic, that is we love our own image.  Just as the term hails from the Greek myth of Narcissus, who rejected the advances of a nymph, and was doomed to fall in love with his own reflection in a pool of water as punishment.  Perhaps the lucidity and fleeting nature of water prompted a more permanent likeness.  The early Greek freestanding figures or group sculptures of ivory and bronze (900-700BC) have paved the way for centuries of figurative sculpture.  And since then, there have been myriad examples of this same type of fascination with solidifying of the human form.  At least nine tenths of all sculpture has been devoted to the subject of creating realistic representations of the human body.

Perhaps we are inclined to make such heavy and monumental human resemblances as a way of dealing with death.  Or perhaps it is the product of our living egos.  Whatever it may be, even the humblest of men wouldn't mind having a marble statue of their likeness in their town square.

This tradition has carried on to contemporary artmaking.  In the 60’s the body lost its prominence as the prime subject for sculpture, to simplified geometric forms, heralding the beginning of a new sculptural movement.  This was also the time that saw the proliferation of nuclear missiles developed by the two world superpowers, Russia and America, which caused a widespread mood of anxiety,  Artists in America and Europe began using their own bodies in performance and happenings.  However, at the end of the 70s and the beginning of the 80s, there was a return to figurative art (paintings and sculptures).

A huge range of approaches to figuration had been practiced throughout the history of sculpture, and the sculptors who turned to the figure in the late 70s were only too aware of what had been tried in the past.  It did not seem relevant to follow the tradition of working from a live model, or from other methods or mimicry like photographs.  The few figurative sculptures that were made in this time were stiff in appearance, as though the body had to be reinvented.

Then, in the early 80s a romantic, mysterious, or expressionist style emerged for a short time period.  But the AIDS epidemic had a powerful effect, causing the human body to be seen less as a conquering hero or embodiment of symbolic virture, and more as a victim of global disease and threat.  The 1982 writing of Julia Kristeva, and her significant publication entitled Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection had a lot of influence on the art world at the time.  For those that do not know, abjection is a concept by the Surrealist writer Georges Bataille.  In contemporary critical theory,abjection is often used to describe the state of often-marginalized groups, such as women, people of color, prostitutes, convicts, disabled people, poor people,, and queers.  In this context, the concept of abject exists in between the concept of an object and the concept of the subject, something alive yet not.  Kristeva describes the abject as the private and intimate aspects of the body, such as bodily function and fluid (as we will see illustrated by Kiki Smith later on), which are deemed inappropriate for public display.  There was also a show at the Whitney in 1993 called ‘Abject Art: Repulsion and Desire in American Art’ which included the work of Louise Bourgeois, Kiki Smith and Robert Gober.  The body was presented as damaged, suffering, wounded, distorted, and conveying political aspects attached to its sexuality, gender and ethnic identity.  

The second surge of figuration in sculpture since the late 90s.  This time the artists are not looking to the past, but to the present, concerning themselves with mass media and popular culture.  Figuration is not as big of an issue as it once was.  Now, it is just one choice among many for sculptors.  There have been a few figurative sculptures I have seen (in real life and virtual) that have really struck me for their strangeness.  Here is a “list” of these favorites.

(I have added all of these works (and some of the artists that weren't previously in the database) so you guys can check them out here in A+C.


1.  Louise Bourgeois

“Arch of Hysteria” 1993

Bronze with silver nitrate patina
83.8 x 101.5 x 58.4 cm


This person describes this work beautifully, so thank you to  (There was no specific author for this bit.)

"Stemming from her interest in the physical, emotional, and psychological aspects of pain and fear, Bourgeois was drawn to the arch of hysteria as theorized and represented by the nineteenth-century neurologist Jean Martin Charcot (1825-1893). While working at the Salpêtrière Hospital in Paris, Charcot sought to represent hysteria by documenting the performances of his female patients. The physical tension of the hysterical arch - an intense muscular contraction, resulting in immobility and paralysis of the limbs - is emblematic of an equally extreme emotional state. Bourgeois makes this highly vulnerable position even more so by suspending her male figure from the ceiling. In choosing to represent him in an attitude traditionally associated with the female, the artist transgresses the social and sexual roles assigned to women, challenging the misconception of hysteria as a female malady."  


2.  Juan Munoz

"London Conversation Piece II" 1993

Resin, Fiberglass, Sand

157.5 x 144 x 70cm


Munoz rejuvinated figurative sculpture in Spain.  His figures exude a sense of melancholy and isolation.  This particular work is smaller than life size and positioned away from the viewer which in turn increases their diminution.  These figures have lumpy sacks as legs and seem stuck in an eternal state of mindless gossip.  A gloomy glance at soul-less living.  


3.  Kiki Smith

"Pee Body" 1992

Wax and glass beads

68.6 x 71.1 x 71.1cm


Kiki Smith primarily represents women as her subjects, often as battered, concentrating on fragility, but what makes the work so intriguing is that even though these women look vulnerable, they have a strong sense of endurance which is supported by her materials.  The inspiration from her work comes from her strong Catholic roots and the suffering endured by saints and her formal training as an emergency medical technician at the Brooklyn Hospital, both giving her firsthand knowledge of damage to the body.  


4.  Berlinde de Bruyckere 

"Hanne" 2003

Wax, HorseHair, Iron Colored Resin

180 x 31 x 54 cm


I do not know too much about this Belgian artist other than she works with horse hair and hide and te women and horses have begun to intermingle.  She has started to cover the bodies and faces of her nude female figures with long horsehair which acts as  a protective veil.  


5.  Olaf Nicolair

"Self-Portrait as a Weeping Narcissus" 2000.

Polyester, clothing, water, electric pump.

90 x 269, 156cm


I chose this one for the sake that it goes with my thesis in addition to the artist's ability to make such realistic sculptures.  In this one, he creates an amalgam of the everyday and the mythical.  The artist, dressed in casual clothes, kneels on a grassy bank and gazes into a small pool.  Every few seconds a concealed electrical pump causes tears to fall form his eyes into the pool.  This refers to the aforementioned classical myth.  Amazing!  


6. Sun Yuan and Peng Yu

"Old Persons Home" 2007

2007 13 x life size sculptures and 13 x dynamoelectric wheel chairs Dimensions variable


This is a hilarious Interactive installation of world leaders in an old age home. Quite funny. The work was originally installed at the Satchi Gallery in London as part of the The Revolution Continues: New Art From China show.  Very controversial, hilariously wicked and satirical.


7.  Marc Quinn

"Self" 1991

Blood, Stainless Steel, Perspex, Refigeration Equipment

82 x 63 x 63cm


This amazing sculpture just astounds me everytime I think about it.  It is both cerebrally pleasing and viscerally stimulating.  This work was created with the artist's own blood which he drew over a 5 month period. (About 8 pints). It examines the human condition of being mortal and meditates on the mortality, while it is tenuously held in frozen animation, and dependent on a regular flow of electricity.  Hmm.. I wonder if he is implying that we would all use technology as a life support.  I mean how many of us could go through the day without the internet?  Well not many of us at A+C.


8.  Time Noble and Sue Webster

"New Barbarians" 1997-1999

Fiberglass, translucent resin 137 x 68.7 x 79


I love Tim and Sue (considered "Post-YBA)  for their wit and humor.  Although they are usually known for sculptures using trash, shadows, light and symbols like the McDonalds and money signs, this offbeat sculpture strikes me as a welcomed change in their body of work.   The pre-historic couple in love, are walking out together, naked and brave. This piece was made between 1997-99 - perhaps this is Tim and Sue's pre-millenial gesture, humanity walking onward in curiousity and ignorance, into the 2000s.  

If I were to put in another one of their works on this list it would be Dirty White Trash (With Gulls), 1998.


9.  Yue Minjun

"Contemporary Terracotta Warriors" 2000

acrylic on fiberglass 

73 x 28½ x 19½ in. (185.4 x 72.3 x 49.5 cm.) 


This work goes with what I was saying in the introduction to this list, about how one might create a sculpture of themselves in order to deal with death, to immortalize. Here the chinese contemporary artist, freezes himself in a state of laughter.  As if he was entering death, as an enlightened and ecstatic being.  This work was included in his first museum show in the United States which took place at the Queen Museum of Art in NY.  The show, Yue Minjun and the Symbolic Smile featured bronze and polychrome sculptures, paintings and drawings and ran from October 2007 to January 2008.  


If you've enjoyed this list, and want to add your own, please do so in the add comment section.



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