Touchy feely

By GREG COOK  |  November 21, 2006

But it feels like just a lot of flash. For all its naughty bits, Brown’s painting is comfortably old hat, a gimmicky retread of mid-century abstraction with lots of art-historical footnotes and a bratty 1990s sneer.

Is there an old geezer artist making better work than 95-year-old Louise Bourgeois? Robert Rauschenberg, 81, seems stuck making slick knockoffs of his great work of several decades ago, and 76-year-old Jasper Johns’s recent work is so gray and constipated, it might as well have been painted by a zombie. Maybe Lucian Freud, 83, or Cy Twombly, 78? Both have turned out rocking paintings in the past several years.

I wouldn’t have considered asking such grandiose questions about Bourgeois 10 years ago. I’m amused by her surreal abstract paintings and wooden totems from the 1940s and ’50s, but too much of her work since — mainly metal and stone sculptures of abstracted pods, cocks and boobs — is either blah or tries too hard to be bad-ass or haunting. I left a retrospective of her drawings at MIT’s List Visual Arts Center in 1996 thinking, “Whatever.” But right around the time of the MIT show, Bourgeois began a series of fabric sculptures that leave me starry-eyed. “Louise Bourgeois: The Woven Child (in context),” at the Worcester Art Museum, collects seven of these pieces.

Bourgeois was born in Paris in 1911, and as a teen she toiled in the family business restoring antique tapestries before moving to New York in 1938. I tracked her down in Manhattan to ask about her recent fabric sculptures. She e-mails, “I’m not so interested in working with fabric but rather with clothes and garments that belonged to me. These clothes hold memories of places and of people. They form a diary of place and time, and that’s what I’m working with.”

An untitled 1996 sculpture features a stuffed orange dress trailing a lizardy orange and black tail and hanging from the arm of a metal post. A spirally bronze blob, like an abstracted wad of intestines or brain, dangles from another arm. It’s as if the orange creature had been separated from her heart or soul and might spring back to life if they were reunited.

THE WOVEN CHILD: Bourgeois’s monster seems urgently patched together to hold life.

The Woven Child (2002), which the Worcester Art Museum bought last year, is a woman’s torso patched together from white fabric scraps. It’s headless and armless and stops at the hips, but Bourgeois judiciously adds a bit of specific detail — nipples — that transforms it from mannequin into body. On the belly a white cloth baby or fœtus lays curled up on its side inside a blue mesh bag. The sculpture embodies the feeling of carrying a child, scary and tender and uncomfortable all at once. Truncated torsos are familiar from classical marbles, but when Bourgeois crops off the head and limbs, she heightens the sense of the body as living organism. The blunt Frankenstein’s-monster seams radiate vulnerability, as if the body had been urgently patched together to hold life. So it’s curious then that it’s enclosed in a seemingly airless steel and glass vitrine. It’s as if our humanity were too dangerous to be out in the open and had to be sealed off from us as a pure scientific specimen, the way they do with rocks shuttled back from Mars.

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