Contributed by Gwenaël Kerlidou / Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad’s 1899 novella, is one of the first fictionalized accounts of the ravages of European colonialism in Africa. Marlow, the narrator, while surveying the grounds of an ivory collecting station on the Congo River, catches sight of a row of shriveled heads mounted on stakes. The episode segues to a deeper exploration of the psyche of Kurtz, a terminally ill but very successful ivory harvester working for the king of Belgium. His cryptic last words – “the horror, the horror” – sum up the situation. The title and content of Conrad’s novella reverberates through Carol Bruns’s current exhibition at White Columns of mostly monochromatic frontal sculptures, in which the human figure is omnipresent, either as hieratic totems or as ritual masks. Scattered in the gallery space, an unruly mob of chimeras and other nightmarish characters seems to be stoically harboring the scars, wrinkles, creases, and other traces of immemorable sufferings.
Conrad’s tale exposed the dark side of nineteenth-century Western exoticism that would eventually encourage the Fauvists’ and Cubists’ to repurpose African art. In the early twentieth century, Western cultures came to value “primitive” art for qualities taken out of context, ultimately reinforcing a formalist reading of Modern Art that culminated in the United States with Clement Greenberg’s theory of formalist reduction, under which the West systematically edited out what did not fit its historical model. Bruns will have none of this.
With a combination of paper, plaster, and other found materials, Bruns shifts the act of sculpting the figure from clay modeling to paper crumpling and assemblage. Her idiosyncratic paper lamination technique often integrates fragments of Styrofoam consumer packaging, melding an archaic organism with a post-industrial one. As a result, the show is rich in dichotomies, hybridizations, ambiguities, and coexisting opposites. Traditional indigenous ritual masks and totems are usually unconcerned with individual expression. But in works like Meltdown and Guardian, Bruns draws the viewer into her figures’ psyches, as if they were characters on a stage. With their petrified hysterical rictuses, they might have been extracted from the archeological site of a sudden ancient catastrophe. Less frightening than puzzled, their expressions hint at a prehistoric time when terror, awe, pathos, and tragicomedy were not yet distinct, and people were seized by forces far beyond their understanding.
As most of these characters seem to be male, Bruns may consider them archetypal Adams cast out of the Garden of Eden, haunted by their loss of innocence on behalf of humankind as a whole. Fringe Elements, a group of twelve masks mounted on sticks, is arguably the part of the exhibition most evocative of Marlow’s vision. The original idea came from an antique mask of Dionysus mounted on a stick, but the resulting Greek choir offers a much grimmer view of the endgame than his promise of pleasure. At the same time, Don’t Shoot, made in response to recent instances of excessive use of force by the police, engage the viewer on a more current basis.
The sculptures are rife with folds, creases and bumps, all signs of inner conflicts and tensions. Bruns takes the viewer on a safari from civilization’s primal fears to individuals’ existential terror. But despite the expressive formal distortions and the clear influences of psychology and symbolism, Bruns does not fully commit to existentialism, expressionism, or “the informal” – intellectual or aesthetic movements that might intuitively be associated with her work. Perhaps she is better identified as a kind of moralist, more concerned with the value system underpinning aesthetic choices than with their formal iterations.
Some of Bruns’s masks recall Jean Dubuffet’s papier-mâché heads from around 1959–60. Dubuffet’s fascination with Gaston Chaissac’s work is an interesting example of the relationship of mainstream to outsider artists, and resonates with Bruns’s sensibility and location in the art world. When Dubuffet was starting to explore the new realm that he would later call Art Brut, he encountered Chaissac, a shoemaker from a small village in Vendée, who struck him as a genuine outsider artist. Chaissac was quite aware of the art world but stayed away from it. For Dubuffet, Chaissac’s indifference to what he saw as “superficial” modernity proved irresistible. Although Bruns is not an outsider artist, she is aware of the contemporary art world and uninterested in participating in its game of history-making. As Dubuffet rejected the humanistic tradition of post-Second World War Cubism, Bruns today rejects the seductions of pop culture, formalist utopias, and post-Duchampian conceptualism. She is equally unenchanted by contemporary art discourse on social identity. From this perspective, her work is an act of political resistance to the cultural narratives and material accumulations of late capitalism.
The artist casts her figures as monsters, scapegoats, spirits, and demons, and one may wonder what kind of untold deeds these characters may have committed. In The Scapegoat, expanding on Sigmund Freud’s Totem and Taboo, René Girard posits that the social bond is cemented by the mechanism of the ritual sacrifice of a designated victim (the primal father for Freud), which constitutes the basis of all human culture. Bruns’s work returns to that foundational moment with a twist: her hybrid monsters look like both victims and perpetrators, vulnerable as well as threatening scared and scary.
Her reluctance to subscribe to the modernist presumption of civilizational progress indicates fundamental doubt about the direction the world is taking. In its preoccupation with the archaic, her work deliberately ignores historical and formal modernist references. She seems to take the well-known Latin proverb “homo homini lupus” – man is wolf to man – and the barbarity of so-called civilization as a central premise, as if the human race were permanently on the brink of regressing to its basic animal instincts. Among strict contemporaries, Bruns enters the conversation somewhere between Franz West and Huma Bhabha. But her sculptures extend a long tradition of monster representation, from the medieval gargoyles and Hieronymus Bosch to Francisco Goya, George Grosz, Alberto Giacometti, Jean Fautrier, Willem de Kooning, and Louise Bourgeois. Her meditation echoes Goya’s The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters, the famous aquatint from Los Capriccios, his 1799 album of prints. In this moment of global climate crisis, major war, and political retrogression, she urgently suggests that homo sapiens start thinking like a tribe about its own survival.
“Carol Bruns: Sculptures,” White Columns, East Gallery, 91 Horatio Street, New York, NY. Through August 26, 2023.
About the author: Gwenaël Kerlidou is a French abstract painter living and working in Brooklyn who writes occasionally on exhibitions in the US and Europe.