Amy Baker Sandback
is a curator and art historian who writes on contemporary culture.
She is currently affiliated with the Dia Center for the Arts, New York,
for whom she is directing the Robert Ryman Catalogue Raisonné and Archive Project.
The dazzle of material things can cast a shadow over what is mindlessly lost in our quest for immediate satisfaction and the quick fix. Ron Garrigues, however, takes a longer view, using his art as a catalytic link between consumerism and the deeper eternal knowledge found buried under the noise of contemporary diversions. As a result the artist’s sculpture provokes a range of conflicting responses, none of them neutral or simple in their implication. The sculpted objects are finely honed balances of attraction and aversion: we are visually attracted to the expert finish of the physical sculpture at the same time that we are made morally uncomfortable by the adverse messages delivered in these elegant wrappings.
A continuity of sculptural approach and a surety of technical skill are constants in Garrigues’ work.
There is a seductive quality to his surfaces that the recent bronze castings retain from the wood carvings of the 1960s that first established his reputation. The abstracted mother goddess figures of the late 1980s came from Garrigues’ intimate concern for the care of the earth represented by the figure of the often ignored Earth Mother. These images became the basis for the even more refined shapes representing animal and human skulls employed in the artist’s most current work. In the new pieces direct castings of found objects are presented, such as a snail shell balanced on top and actual coins set into the eye sockets and mouth of a skull. There is even a plastic replica of a hamburger and side of fries served up from the artist’s shopping trips to Toys R Us. The minute detail of these additions are in contrast to the simplified form of the skulls themselves.
Among the unlikely juxtapositions in the current series are castings of toy cars, such as those implanted into the mouth of Automotive-Age Man / Self-Sacrifice I, adding a bite as painful as the handiwork of a mad dentist. In Yessir That’s My Baby, a helmeted death head sits atop a tall shaft. At the base of this, on each side of the shaft, are gently modeled baby heads cast from parts taken from children’s plastic dolls. The artwork, an unambiguous phallus, bluntly makes the point, without polite sidesteps, that unlimited population growth is lethal in an already crowded world. In the sculpture entitled Stop, a disembodied hand from a dress store mannequin protrudes from the forehead of a skull with an imploring gesture akin to ecstatic saints reaching out for God seen in seventeenth century Mannerist paintings. Garrigues forces the issues and, in turn, one is forced to confront his concerns.
In each artwork the perils that result from our disregard of nature are symbolized by the formalized skull that shares the elegant surfaces of the artist’s older abstract work but now appears bearing messages intensified by the imposition of “real” things. Also new to Garrigues’ visual broadsides is the jarring use of humor, be it black, in the telling. Absolut Ron is a send-up of the media campaign by the maker of a well-known Swedish vodka. Whereas the playful magazine ads show the distiller’s signature bottle re-made in flowers or as a shadow between buildings (a New York wallwork seven stories high), Garrigues’ ten-inch representation of the citron bottle design is an intimate statuette that sits demurely on a table and warns of death, not of a good time on a spring outing or trompe d’oeil amusement. This “life” size cast of the vodka bottle has the linear outline of a skull engraved with a second smaller bottle as the mouth and nose cavity in place of the usual logo.
Likewise the ad campaign undertaken by environmentalists who are trying to ban the use of fur and animal skins is the starting point for a recent sculpture titled American Crocodile/Fashion Sacrifice.
The piece is composed of a simplified skull of a crocodile and a direct casting of a classic lady’s handbag made from the specie, only seven hundred of which are left in the wild. The fashionable bag, in all its realistic splendor, hangs from the creature’s grinning mouth. The smile is as false as alligator tears, but not the irony. Elegantly abstracted birds, such as ravens, were seen earlier in Garrigues’ sculpture and these have been joined by the spotted owl, the elephant and the wolf, all displaced, like the American crocodile, by the “advances” of modern society.
Birds of Paradise (these lost not found) make their appearance in a pair and as a trio reduced to pure form. In another piece the smooth whirl of molded shapes, like breaking waves, could be taken for a pure abstraction, but on longer look reveal fish forcing their way up river, a commentary aptly titled Salmon/River of No Return, a memorial rather than a celebration of tenacity.
All of the human and animal skulls in Garrigues’ artworks have been simplified to near abstract presence. Garrigues says he is a “reductionist and not a modeler,” a comment on his process of working the initial clay but which could equally apply to his content. He pares down visual and social information to the essentials by employing concentration and focus. For me, part of an artist’s value in our society is just this uncanny, nonverbal ability to provide a special kind of clarity and by doing so to challenge us to drop our complacency fostered by ready-made taglines that sugarcoat difficult realities. Garrigues’ art is very personal yet it functions as beautifully accessible, if disagreeable, reminders of humanity’s careless disregard and self-important illusion of permanence. He forces us to rethink the notion that artists live removed from the hard truths of daily existence. On the contrary, Garrigues is acutely aware of what is going on. He has that special ability to see through the general distortions that often make for confusion. The message in each of his sculptures comes across loud and clear: disrespect for the forces of nature leads to disaster. By opening our eyes to these core truths, the artist gives form to mysteries. This mutation of mind and matter is rendered with a steady hand, a bitter smile and always a telling eye for detail.
The Beauty Politic
We are experiencing a disintegration of the life systems of the planet just when the Earth in the diversity and resplendence of its self-expression had attained a unique grandeur. This moment deserves special attention on the part of humans who are themselves bringing about this disintegration in a manner that has never happened previously in the entire 4.6 billion years of Earth history.
Ron Garrigues has trekked through the great mountain ranges of the world. He has walked the Andes, the Himalayas, the Alps and, every year, the Sierra Nevada. Traversing these sublime and awesome peaks, has marked him and marked his art. Such communion with nature inevitably is fraught with a complicated range of emotions and reflections. The still pristine backcountry of the Sierra Nevada must be reconciled with the extensive litter of oxygen bottles and other refuse on Mt. Everest. The presence of so much human debris on the top of the world’s highest mountain does not bode well for places still wild.
Garrigues is troubled by what he has seen, and this concern finds expression in his sculpture; it has forced a seachange in the aims and formal direction of his work. What has resulted in the last ten years of artistic output constitutes a visual polemic on what Garrigues has called “the rampant destruction wrought by man’s presence on our fragile planet.”1 In the face of one person’s inability to change the world, Garrigues has chosen to send his message through his work. Beauty is at the core of Garrigues’ artistic concerns. In certain respects, it is this interest in beauty that links Garrigues’ recent sculpture with his early work of the late 1950s and 1960s.
Garrigues enjoyed remarkable success with his early sculpture, though he did not begin to sculpt until he was twenty-nine. Raised in the Bay Area, Garrigues was living in North Beach in the late 1950s and circulating among many of the Beat generation artists associated with the San Francisco Art Institute, such as Joan Brown, Manuel Neri and Bruce Connor. He was heavily influenced as much by their creative lifestyle as by their artistic output, and he began sculpting in wood at his kitchen table. He is self-taught and learned the nuances of his craft from other artists. He learned how to use woodworking tools from San Francisco sculptor Richard Whalen, and how to work in bronze from Peter Voulkos and Harold Paris, who started the first foundry in the Bay Area at U.C. Berkeley. “Whatever I needed to learn, I found somebody to teach me,” says Garrigues. He was exhibiting by the early 1960s and meeting with much critical success. Long-time San Francisco Chronicle reviewer Alfred Frankenstein wrote of his first solo show at the Palace of the Legion of Honor in 1961 that “. . .Garrigues. . .almost inconceiviably, has been at it less than two years. In that incredibly brief time he has developed into one of the best carvers and sculptural designers in the Bay Region.”2 His solo show at the Legion was followed by shows at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art and the Pasadena Art Museum, among others, with similarly laudable receptions.
This early work is, in certain respects, far from what Garrigues is doing today. His primary concern in his early work was what he has described as “the lyric purity of form and line”what might be called, quite simply, beauty. His conception of this term during this period was organized around the ability of an artwork to impart visual pleasure. Beauty in his work did not function rhetorically in support of a social or political message, as it does in his more recent work. Rather, the early work is deeply grounded in a humanist modernism which foregoes critical commentary on the social and ecological effects of our technological age. But as the subject matter of his work changed in the mid-1980s and he began to address the concrete realities of our mindless way of living on the earth, beauty began to function differently in the visual polemic Garrigues was creating.
It was the Exxon Valdez oilspill of 1989 that brought forth the first of the skull series, Raven-Oilspill Sacrifice. Presented on a black granite slab, the sleek birdskull has an elegant presence, somber and funereal in tone. Shaped by a sequence of smoothly rounded curves the skull is richly sensual; the smooth polished surface of the bronze invites touch just as the glistening black feathers of the bird do. The spare isolation of the skull on its base imparts an elegiac sadness for the passing of this creature, as if it were the last such passing we might witness. As a traditional harbinger of death, the raven stands as a metonymic sentinel for the extinction of all birds.
The beauty of the piece reaches beyond the visual pleasure engendered by a confluence of formal characteristics in a sympathetic aesthetic order. It arises instead from the place in beauty where the sublime meets the terrible. Here beauty is fraught with emotion and cannot be engaged from a cool analytic distance. Here it is impassioned. The presence of death embedded in the skull form makes this thing of beauty ominous and empowered. In a sense, beauty takes as its subject in this work, the core of fearloss of being or death. The tension this creates makes beauty difficult, and it is this that activates beauty and makes it operative in a rhetorical capacity. As rhetoric, beauty forces questions on us that we do not easily confront, and in this manner, compels a contemplation of the truer meaning of loss.
This tension runs through all of Garrigues’ skull pieces. The death’s head is an important form in much Tibetan and Himalayan art. Garrigues has been collecting Himalayan art for many years, and this has had a profound influence on him. But in Buddhist art, the skull can be representative of the cycle of death and rebirth, a far more optimistic scenario than the one that Garrigues envisions. For Garrigues, the skull warns of a final end from which there is no returndestruction is complete and there is no renewal in its ash. Progress will run itself out to the detriment of living things, ourselves included, if we do not stop taking it for granted.
It is this message that Garrigues drives home in the series Endangered Species. The body of work falls into two distict groups: this first is a series of animal skulls sometimes coupled with objects symbolic of their destructiona sea turtle skull sits on a butcher block, for example, referencing its consumption as an exotic delicacy in many countries; the second group is a series of human skulls which offer critical commentary on the social and economic systems of humanity which underlie our destructive ways of living. Garrigues is particularly critical of the growth of global corporations, such as McDonalds or Disney, which export free market capitalism across the varied nations and cultures of the world, transforming them into one great engine of consumption. Transglobal Virus I and Transglobal Virus II both make direct reference to these corporations, the first a maniacally grinning death’s head sporting Mickey Mouse ears, and the second a globular skull with french fry teeth and a hamburger hat. Garrigues uses his wryly ironic titles to inflect the critical commentary of the piece, making it specific and unmistakable. In The Nature of the Beast, large coins fill the eye sockets and capacious mouth of the skull, making a strongly accusatory statement about greed. Dr Frankenkloner sports the skull of a ram erupting from its crown fully formed but dead on arrival, a dark commentary on genetic cloning. Overpopulation is another theme which runs through this second series of skulls and Garrigues’ anger at the Catholic church’s policy on birth control is explicit and untempered. In Overpopulation/the Crux of the Matter I, a death’s head wearing a pope’s mitre births a child through its vaginal mouthsuch overpopulation can only lead to death. The negligence of church policy is clearly fingered in this work.
Yet as pessimistic and difficult as his subject matter becomes, it always pulls against the lush surface of the bronze and the smooth sway of his lines. Garrigues is a master of line and his interest in formalism remains strong. These are unquestionably beautiful pieces and there is definite visual pleasure to be had from them. But as the function of beauty changed in Garrigues’ work from a purely formal capacity to a rhetorical one, it has allowed the social message carried in the work to speak with greater force.
Critic Dave Hickey, in his notable series of essays on beauty, The Invisible Dragon, has noted that,
For [more than four centuries of artistic production] a loose protean collection of tropes and figures signifying “beauty” functioned as the pathos that recommended the logos and ethos of visual argumentation to our attention. . . The task of these figures of beauty was to enfranchise the audience and acknowledge its powerto designate a territory of shared values between the image and its beholder and, then, in this territory, to argue the argument by valorizing the picture’s problematic content.
Beauty works for Garrigues in this wayit serves him, and serves his message,
and he has got something very serious to say. We can only hope he is heard.