The 19th century loved sorrow and the macabre. Perhaps it was triggered by the death of Prince Albert, which plunged the British Empire into socially-enforced mourning for decades. Or perhaps it was brought about through the exploration of dark stories by Romantic authors and composers such as Edgar Allen Poe and Hector Berlioz. However it came about, there is a discernible fascination with isolation and death which permeates Western cultural output in the 19th century.
This undercurrent continues to fascinate popular culture today, as can be evidenced by successful television series like “The Walking Dead”, but also in high culture, such as in the work of Irish sculptor Kevin Francis Gray. Born in Northern Ireland in 1972 and now working in London, Mr. Gray’s work is evocative of both the 19th century academic tradition in sculpture, and the 19th century fascination with loss. At the same time, he is looking at our own society and realizing how very sad and disconnected we often are in our relationships with each other.
The Academic tradition which dominated the artistic establishment in the West throughout the 19th century pursued realism, using the study of the Classical tradition from Greece and Rome as the basis by which to achieve it. In his execution, and in his understanding of the possibilities of materials such as bronze and marble, Mr. Gray could be seen as the product of this tradition. However when the viewer takes a closer look, he realizes that despite the surface polish and perfection, there is something else going on in Mr. Gray’s work.
One perfect example of this is Mr. Gray’s series of sculptures of standing figures sporting extraordinary beaded veils, which come down across the face and hang all the way to the floor. At a distance, they appear to be straightforward, realistic sculptures of people, who just so happen to be wearing an odd curtain over their face. However draw a bit closer to the white marble statue of a girl in a tank dress, and one can see that beneath the veil the face is that of a skeleton. It is a shock worthy not only of the 19th century masters of the macabre, but more importantly a look back to the Middle Ages and to Baroque Spain and Italy of the “Memento Mori”, seen everywhere in the 16th and 17th centuries from tombs of Popes to still lives of game and rotting fruit.
Another example of Mr. Gray’s unexpected combination of interests is his 2013 “Twelve Chambers”, recently unveiled at Pace London. It features twelve life-size, bronze figures, modeled from people whom the artist met around his London studio. The grouping is not uniform, in that the figures seem to be moving in different directions; all are experiencing different emotions, many quite somber and sad. While no doubt not the artist’s intention, if you want to get some idea of what the Catholic concept of Purgatory is like, where we must wait around and reflect on how we have failed God and our fellow man by not loving either enough, this may be as good a contemporary visualization as any you will find.
And then there is Mr. Gray’s extraordinarily sensitive, luxurious draping, particularly when used as a veil. We can find in art history several examples of sculptors who were able to capture the look of fabric stretched across a human face, but this was so hard to do that few actually managed to achieve it with any level of plausibility. Yet in his marble “Ballerina” from 2012, just one example among many of his technical prowess, Mr. Gray not only manages to veil the face of his model in a realistic way, but covers much of her upper body in the same diaphanous fabric. It stretches across and pools behind her, leaving her pretty dancers’ legs and pointed feet exposed, thus giving us a clue to her profession.
It is a joy to see someone who has studied and learned from the artistic tradition that came before him, who is at the same time able to interpret it in a way that speaks to living in the 21st century. Mr. Gray’s figures put us in mind of how distanced we have become not only from the reality of how short this life is, something the Victorians understood all too well, but also from each other. We so often hide ourselves in different personae on social media, rather than forming real relationships, or we live rather paradoxically in virtual isolation inside a multi-story apartment building full of people whom we never speak to. We are all of us, in some way, veiled to one another, not allowing reality to penetrate, perhaps because we fear suffering and death as much as we fear each other.
Art like Mr. Gray’s makes you think, reflect on your own life, and ask yourself what exactly you are doing with that gift of life you have been given. His particular genius is being able to do so while still bringing us the aesthetic pleasure of admiring his craft. It is why work such as this can still move us, even in our very jaded and self-centered age.