The Chelsea art galleries in Manhattan are an amazing free public resource and the DC Moore Gallery helps to show why with their latest show - Mary Frank: Elemental Expression (Sculpture 1969 – 1985 and Recent Work).
In many of her early works on display at DC Moore, we see these figures lying supine while having engaged in some trying type of inner process. The position of the body often implies that some type of struggle has occurred within the resting body. In other pieces we see figures upright and dancing or in some type of extreme, gravity-defying posture. By presenting the outer crust of the person undergoing intense experience, Frank seems to be pointing to the divorce between that transformative outcome within the figure and the perception of and attempt to understand what has happened by the viewer.
In these sculptural pieces, the viscera of the subject are gone and this is, basically, the de facto case any time we perceive another person undergoing something intensely emotional. We are compelled to interpret and respond to what we can see – we have no direct access to the actual feelings of the other person. If another is feeling pain, we often will also feel pain, but it is a different type of pain. Our bodies and emotions essentially deceive us with analogous but watered-down versions of the other’s experience, which does tend to draw us closer to the afflicted person, but not enough for a real sense of fellow-feeling. Conversely, when we see extreme joy, we also might feel joy, but it is not the joy the other feels, but a diluted version that intimates the deeper joy while still excluding us from the full participation that only the subject who has engaged in the initial experience can feel.
In these pieces by Frank, these are frozen, petrified experiences without the external or internal contexts. We do not know what initiated the experience and we do not know the inner workings of the body that brought about the experience. We are left with nothing but the physical expressions. Indeed, we are very much interlopers and voyeurs in this process. The figures are not attempting interpersonal engagement with us – they have sought out seclusion and we have found them, or at least found traces of what they have gone through.
Others who have seen Frank’s work point out a sensuality in these figures. That’s true but in some religious literature and art (St. Theresa by Bernini is an easy example) sexual ecstasy seems to be used as an analog to approximate complete spiritual fulfillment. It is the closest form of corporeal bliss that can approximate spiritual bliss. Religious writers and artists (including Frank) might also be pointing out the intense relationship between the spiritual and the sexual. The spiritual is literally born from the sexual and also gives meaning to the sexual process.