Ancestral Figure

12 Jun - 28 Jul 2012

12 June - 28 July 2012

Gagosian Gallery is pleased to present “Ancestral Figure,” a convergence of four artists—Walker Evans, Sherrie Levine, Roe Ethridge, and Mark Grotjahn—in their respective responses to the ritual object as inspiration, referent, index, and collectible of mysterious allure.

The title is from a photograph by Walker Evans. Ancestral figure [Reliquary figure] is one image among the hundreds that comprise the vast educational portfolio that Alfred H. Barr Jr. commissionedto to document the groundbreaking exhibition "African Negro Art" at the Museum of Modern Art in 1935. The exhibition brought together an unprecedented number of African sculptures from institutional and private collections and is said to have engendered the Western canon of African art. For Evans it was a turning point in his career.

Evans's project helped form the aesthetic criteria and the method by which African art was studied for decades. So seamlessly did he link the diverse subjects to his detailed and powerful representations of them that the status of the photographs as photographs was minimized, and subsequently they were viewed more as surrogates for the sculptures themselves. Probing the relationship thus established between the original object of ritual and its aesthetic corollary, Levine, Ethridge and Grotjahn seek to locate the flashpoint at which the art-historical, anthropological or sociological realities of the original artifact end, and a new independent vision begins.

In the Makonde Body Masks, Sherrie Levine blatantly transforms social and cultural function into pure aesthetic value. These distinctive body masks, which represent the torsos of pregnant women, are a stunning cultural paradox used by pubescent boys to enact the rite de passage from childhood to adulthood. By casting this highly collectible tribal artifact in gleaming bronze, she simultaneously doubles and collapses its impact as cultural fetish in the most traditional syntax of contemporary sculpture.

Ethridge’s reductive mappings of African masks are the most direct response to Evans’s carefully stylized visualizations. Recently commissioned to document an important private art collection, he was strongly attracted by a series of African masks displayed among the modern masterpieces. While Evans made the essence of his subjects palpable through detailed and artful observation, Ethridge inverts and obfuscates, focusing on the anonymous roughly carved reverse of each mask, then reducing his frame to the schematic facial features. His choice to print the photos on a scale that immediately suggests an association with abstract painting further agitates traditional hierarchies of value.

With bronze sculptures, cast from spontaneous cardboard assemblages and painted, often with the fingers, Mark Grotjahn dares to inhabit and enact the inspirative relationship between the early modernists and African and Oceanic sources. And while, like his predecessors, from Picasso to Ernst, he establishes an aesthetic remove from his referents via the processes of fabrication and production, his sculptures manifest both an undeniable primal intensity as well as a sophisticated yet endearing appeal.

Spanning several generations, each artist in "Ancestral Figure" intuitively interrogates receding definitions of medium, authenticity, and originality as signifiers of value, looking to pinpoint ecstatic moments of multivalent complexity.

Tags: Roe Ethridge, Walker Evans, Mark Grotjahn, Sherrie Levine, Pablo Picasso