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Fragments and Repetition: Extending the Narrative of Sculptural Installation

Virginia Maksymowicz


As a young art student in an undergraduate programme at Brooklyn College in New York City, I remember coming upon Jasper Johns’s Target with Four Faces (1995) (fig. 1) for the first time at the Museum of Modern Art. There was something about it that gripped me instantly . . . something about the repetition of those four anonymous plaster noses and mouths peeking out above that encaustic target that seemed to amplify the metaphorical possibilities. Then came a ceramics course in which the professor taught us how to press mould clay into plastergauze casts taken from life (fig. 2).


That was 1972. I was hooked. I went on to study figurative clay modelling at the Brooklyn Museum Art School (fig. 3), (fig. 4), and sculpture and installation at the University of California, San Diego, all the while working with fragments (sometimes literally) of figures in clay (fig. 5), (fig. 6), (fig. 7), (fig. 8). I’ve continued fragmenting my way through stoneware, handmade paper, Hydrostone, and, most recently, Hydrocal FGR – as well as combinations of these media – for thirty years.


So why has this type of imagery monopolized my attention for such a long time? Borrowing from literary terminology, I’ve come to realize the power of what might be called ‘visual synecdoche’. By using only a segment of the human figure, an artist can seduce her audience into becoming active participants instead of remaining passive viewers. With the part standing for the whole – in narrative as well as visual terms – the possibilities for interpretation are extended. Whose body is this? Is it male or female? Could it be me? Could it be someone I know? The ambiguity of those partial faces, giving rise to innumerable questions, is clearly a part of what had fascinated me in Target with Four Faces.

Perhaps this is why ceramics was such a natural starting place for me – archaeologists have long used shards of broken pottery to construct narratives of prehistoric times. As an artist I use sculptural fragments of the human figure to construct narratives of our own times. But there was something else going on in that Johns piece that caught my imagination – he hadn’t been satisfied with using just one facial cast. Applying another type of verbal concept to the visual, repetition can extend the narrative further. This is true whether it is used as a sort of alliteration, such as I employed in my 1995 Lily of the Mohawks made of paper, clay, silk flowers, and mixed media (fig. 9), (fig. 10), or as a kind of assonance, as in Johns’s other target – Target with Plaster Casts (1955) (fig. 11) – and my Pennies from Heaven, an installation from 1987 at the Franklin Furnace in New York City (fig. 12), (fig. 13).


Alliterative replication through the casting process results in a grouping of nearly identical, though slightly varied, human forms, which insists upon a relationship with the viewer. A good example would be Magdalena Abakanowicz’s burlap Backs (fig. 14). Assonate replication through the casting process results in a mixed grouping of forms, which forces the viewer to construct relationships between the parts. Here I can offer the example of Antony Gormley’s Critical Mass at the Royal Academy of London in 1998 (fig. 15).


In the following examples of my own sculptural installations, I’ve used fragmented and repeated figures in a variety of ways that complement and extend their meaning:


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Fragments and Repetition • Issue 8