Sculpture Magazine Review
One of the most exhilarating art experiences is having one’s preconceptions shaken by work that defies usual expectations. The TSUNAMI sculptures of Cornelia Kubler Kavanagh, which I reviewed for her show at New York’s Blue Mountain Gallery September 5-30, 2006, are like that. A tsunami is universally feared as a bringer of mass destruction, but these sculptures reveal a paradox: a tsunami, if it could be arrested, would have an awesomely beautiful shape. Kavanagh has created a dozen different sculptures that reiterate the essential sublimity of the giant waves.
Not surprisingly, Kavanagh came to this provocative subject matter because of the devastating tsunami that struck Southeast Asia in December, 2004. Artists frequently feel a visceral need to respond to a crisis. But as a sculptor, she had been prepared for such response long before. Her father, George Kubler, was a prominent art historian who is widely known for his book, The Shape of Time. Kubler was inspired by an earlier book, The Life of Forms in Art, by Henri Focillon, that he had translated from the French. Both books assert that all shapes, art works, artifacts and even tools are bound by shared concepts over a certain period of time, independent of style. Naturally, Kavanagh grew up imbued with ideas about shape and form. When, after a career in teaching and raising a family, she turned to making sculpture, it was of a kind that expresses the essence of form in a declarative way. The body of work just preceding the TSUNAMIS, called “The Shape of Time,” was exhibited in the 2005 Venice Biennale where Kavanagh represented the US Virgin Islands Council on the Arts. Her sculptures in that series assume a variety of abstract shapes that often allude to realistic objects. George Kubler was a pioneer in the field of Pre-Columbian art, and one of Kavanagh’s pieces, CHACMOOL, wittily refers to a reclining figure that is prevalent in Pre-Columbian sculpture. She has also decorously commemorated THE FOUR SEASONS, and pre-tsunami, the sea found its way into her work as shell forms. Her work has clearly been influenced by the elegant band of early modern sculptors that includes Brancusi, Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth and Isamu Noguchi. Their work is recognized as the most elevated sculpture of the past century. But with her TSUNAMIS Kavanagh has dismissed the lofty tone. A sense of urgency is in its place. She takes the temperature of our unsettled times and a sense of purity about the work that inspired her has undergone a transformation. The TSUNAMIS are accelerated and convey the onrush of contemporary life. In the widest sense. One might be reminded of the ideal of speed that characterized the edginess of futurism at the beginning of the last century.
Kavanagh’s TSUNAMI sculptures have sharper edges than do the characteristic works of her forebears. In describing the mechanics of a tsunami, the artist says that they slice up what is in their path. The sculptures feature a natural dynamic: the immense arching wave by which a tsunami first makes its presence felt, is followed by what she refers to as a “splash back,” a smaller wave that goes in the opposite direction. It is especially potent for being so concerted. The various embodiments of the wave and the ‘splash back’ tango in different ways. Sometimes the ‘splash back’ seems an appendage, but in one piece, wave and ‘splash back’ meet each other head on in what looks like a kiss. The sculptures’ color is important; Kavanagh has chosen various blues to reflect the changing tonality of the sea. The color is auto body paint applied to plaster-covered Styrofoam, certainly an innovation.
Kavanagh wants to send the TSUNAMIS, scaled up to public sculpture size, out into the world. They might have the totally positive effect of raising awareness as well as monetary funds for victims. The exalting of something awful is a seeming contradiction that might be difficult to assimilate. But it’s the kind of singular tension that the highest art embraces.