Aptly titled “Incarnate,” Bruce Gagnier’s third show at Bookstein testified to his intense, decades-long preoccupation with the body. The New York-based sculptor has been exhibiting for over 30 years. Placed throughout the main room were 10 disquieting life-size nudes (2007 to 2010) on low pedestals. Together, they evoked classical marble statues in both color (predominantly white or near white) and pose (deviant variations on contrapposto). But Gagnier’s portly men and women are far from ideal; replete with scarred and wrinkled skin, paunches, and protruding joints and bones, their weary bodies poignantly articulate the effects of time and gravity. The figures are caught making stilted gestures or with their arms hanging stiffly at their sides. Modeled in clay and then cast in Hydrocal—a malleable type of plaster—the sculptures are painstakingly worked, their surfaces scraped, rubbed, gouged and layered with undulating clumps and petals of plaster, which are sometimes lightly tinted with paint to create color modulations.
The awkwardness and vulnerability of the figures elicit empathy and even humor. A female form titled Red (2009), for example, stands self-consciously. The rippled contours describe a torso with sloping shoulders; lopsided, conical breasts; and a flabby, dimpled belly. One hand reaches toward lumpy thighs, which are squeezed together, perhaps in an attempt at modesty. The figure’s physical decline is offset by delicate, marblelike patinas and earthy red washes that run through the hair and face—demurely turned to the side, with eyes closed—and down the long, graceful neck, collecting in the ridges of her vertebrae and the folds and creases of her skin.
Gagnier’s earlier figural works, smaller and more impersonal, flaunted deformity—often depicting freakish bodies with outrageously bubbled skin that suggested a blistering plague. In contrast, these more subdued sculptures have individualized physiognomies and, in many cases, names: Rose, Mrs. Petit, Eddie, Joseph, etc. Gagnier often cites Giacometti as a major influence, but the works on view uncannily evoked Matisse’s early bronzes and even Rodin’s figures in their exaggerated, forceful modeling.
Displayed on ledges in the back room were plaster heads and, in a more elegiac vein, several crosses and religiously themed statuettes (ranging from 1999 to the present), whose coral-like surfaces suggest that they might have been excavated from the ruins of a church. A maimed but exquisite little angel with only one wing underscored the condition of the nudes shown in the other room, who all seem to be grappling with the human spirit’s transcendence of the flawed, mortal self.
Photo: View of Bruce Gagnier’s painted Hydrocal sculptures, showing (left to right) Mrs. Petit, 2009; Francis, Joseph and Red, all 2010; at Lori Bookstein