by John Mendelsohn July 20,2023
at White Columns, 91 Horatio St., New York, NY, July 13-August 26, 2023
At White Columns, there is a rogue’s gallery of monsters, avatars, fiends, sad sacks, and ghosts. Carol Bruns’s sculptures haunt the space like incarnations of psychological states: terror, abjection, withdrawal, self-awareness, and more. Constructed from paper, plaster, Styrofoam, and other found materials, these wall relief and free-standing works have a raw, material directness, giving us the feeling that there was an urgent need for them to be made. Through the physical processes of building, layering, and manipulating there is the sense of an inner life made manifest.
With this work, we feel in touch with something primal, a realm of the psyche that in turn is a portal to the mythic. The sculptures suggest a continuity between contemporary, expressive art and the artifacts of traditional cultures, in which masks, costumes, and sculpted objects connect the everyday with the world of the spirit.
There is a kind of wildness at work here, conjuring up the human form and face in extremis, and as well a sense of transgressive freedom, as we intuit the artist discovering the power of revealing a collapsing visage, a grimacing mouth, a morphing skull. Distortion and anomaly become the norm, with a fervid energy animating these personages that twist, bulge, and hollow themselves out. Often the surfaces are creased and rough, as if a strong wind had blown across sagging skin.
At the same time there is a kind of impacted, restrained quality in the limited palette of white, gray, and black, and in the way that the turmoil beneath the surface is contained within a sculptural form. This is especially notable in the totemic figures, whose movement is constrained by their column-like verticality.
Image Left: Carol Bruns, Afflicted Man, 2023, plaster, bamboo, styrofoam, paper 68 x16 x10 inches Image Right: Carol Bruns, Fringe Elements, 2023, plastic, bamboo, paper, paint, dimensions variable,12 parts Header Image: Carol Bruns, Meltdown, 2022, cardboard, styrofoam, paper, plaster, 21 x 16 x 9 inches Images courtesy of the artist and White Columns
There are a number of outstanding pieces that represent major directions in Bruns’s work. “Meltdown” is a wall relief head, with brick-shaped projections beneath the plaster skin that make the face into an emblem of freaking out, emphasized by the hollow depths of the mouth and eye sockets. Similarly, in “Oppressed”, a head under emotional pressure becomes a nearly abstract form, identifiable by its misplaced, empty eyes.
“Afflicted Man”, is a life-sized standing figure, armless with atrophied legs, small torso, and a head that is nearly equal to the rest of his body. The features are cut into the white surface, yielding a shattered expression. Fox Totem is a standing form of stacked boxes emerging from a plaster-filled bucket topped with an abstract fox head, a reminder that in all this work the human and the animal can be seen as one.
“Prisoner”, an abstraction of bondage, is made of plaster-stiffened paper, forming an angular ring of limbs bound by hemp. “Forest Spirit” is a spherical head, dark and intense, with a bitumen surface covered with dry pine needles, out of which emerge peering eyes. In “Fringe Elements”, Bruns has gathered twelve of her heads mounted on posts, each with a plaster base. This grove of disembodied faces forms a kind of community, detached yet floating together.
Along with the feeling that we have entered a zone of the archaic and the primordial in this work, we see evidence of the current material and technological era in the form of found materials used for packing and shipping. There is a kind of homemade arte povera quality here, finding what is available and using it in often undisguised form. This connects her work to the spirit of outsider art, in its improvised, heart-felt openness. Her sculpture relates to modern and contemporary artists who embraced a similarly acute emotional vulnerability – Giacometti, Dubuffet, Bacon, and Bourgeois.
Carol Bruns’s work constitutes a challenge to the viewer to come face-to face with disturbing states of feeling in three-dimensional form. Throughout is an evocation of angst and suffering, but also the courage to create a visual witness to private and collective existential realities.
Image Left: Carol Bruns, Meltdown, 2022, cardboard, styrofoam, paper, plaster, 21 x 16 x 9 inches Image Right: Carol Bruns, Oppressed, 2022, paper, cardboard, gesso 23x14x12 in.Images courtesy of the artist and White Columns