Kevin Francis Gray’s debt to classical sculpture is both obvious and complicated, writes Riann Coulter in anticipation of the Armagh-born artist’s first exhibition on this island.
For any artist trained in the European tradition, the question of how to deal with the legacy of art history is a pertinent one. While some attempt the difficult tasks of rejecting or ignoring their forebearers, others take on tradition and try to find ways of reinventing what has gone before. Kevin Francis Gray has positioned himself in the latter camp and his debt to classical sculpture and its reinvention by Italian Baroque artists, such as Bernini, is both obvious and complicated. Stefano Maderno’s Saint Cecilia (1600) and Giuseppe Sanmartino’s Veiled Christ (1753) have been cited as formative influences on Gray’s work.1 While the stylistic influence is obvious, he has managed to avoid pastiche and to create original works that ‘thread the boundary between contemporary society and classical history.’2
In sculptures such as Temporal Sitter the viewer’s appreciation of the sheer virtuosity of Gray’s talent for rendering life-like figures in an academic manner is quickly followed by the recognition that this is a contemporary work (Fig 5). Made of highly polished bronze Temporal Sitter depicts a young, male, barefooted figure whose head, face and torso are covered in a thin veil. The delicacy of the drapery and the sheen of polished bronze create the illusion of fluidity which tempts us to reach out to verify the solidity of the sculpture. Despite the obvious tactility and attraction, there is also a sense of foreboding about the figure, particularly the veiled face which brings to mind a shroud or death mask.
Born in Armagh in 1972 and now based in London and Italy, Gray studied at the National College of Art and Design, Dublin, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and was awarded a Masters in Fine Art from Goldsmiths College, London, in 1999. Although he has exhibited widely in venues which include the Royal Academy, London, Musée d’art Moderne, Saint-Étienne, France, the Tel Aviv Museum of Art and Art Space, New York, neither Gray’s name nor his work are well-known in Ireland. That will certainly change this March when the Market Place Gallery, Armagh, hosts a solo exhibition of his work as part of the city’s annual Home of St Patrick Festival.
Intended to be a survey of his sculptural work over the last decade, the exhibition will display Gray’s dexterity with diverse materials from resin and plaster to porcelain, bronze and marble. This opportunity to reconsider aspects of his sculptural work comes at a pivotal moment in his career as he develops a new artistic language expressed primarily in marble.
This new body of work also moves away from the contemporary classical style of his earlier figurative sculptures towards an expressive, almost painterly rendering of heads and figures. The dramatic contrast between the abstracted form and deeply textured impasto of these recent works in plaster and marble, including Hades’ Head (Fig 6) and the shimmering, classical beauty of earlier works in bronze and resin such as Ballerina and Boy (Study), marks a major shift in Gray’s work and one that suggests confidence and artistic vision that is admirable in any artist, let alone one who has found success (Fig 4). In an interview in 2013, Gray acknowledged the difficulties involved in changing his style:
‘One of the real struggles for me has been to change my artistic voice. When I started creating works around youth culture, I had a lot of success. Many people responded to that earlier work. It was hard to move away from that.’3
A second shift ocurred when Gray decided to depart from his classically beautiful veiled figures to works such as Twelve Chambers. In its first iteration, this work was a group of twelve porcelain heads, mounted on brass and black marble and displayed on four-legged steel stands arranged in a square grid (Fig 7). Gray has spoken about the subjects for this work as ‘everyday people. I was interested in distilling their personalities into the work’.4 Later, the same concept became twelve life-size bronze nude figures. Here, rather than heroic ideals we are presented with figures that are all too human in their imperfections. Each nude is set on its own bronze pedestal which Gray has described as ‘floating on its own island’, perhaps an oblique allegory of political factions in Ireland.
The darker aspects of Gray’s works have been linked to his childhood growing up in South Armagh during the height of the Troubles, a fact which he acknowledged in relation to Twelve Chambers. ‘The realm of the real is brutal and I think aggressive and angular … and that’s how I see people. I don’t see them as Herculean characters. These are people that actually exist.’5
While those earlier shifts in subject matter may have been preparation for this new approach, the stark contrast in the style of the work on show is both shocking and invigorating. What unites the sculptures into one cohesive oeuvre is the process of making and the attention to detail. Although the new works in marble give the impression of forms that have been vigorously and rapidly made, the transition between Gray’s plaster studies and the final marble, is a painstaking process that involves a family of traditional artisans in Italy who have been making marble copies of classical sculptures for the Vatican for generations. Working closely with these master craftsmen, Gray is once again simultaneously embracing tradition and changing it.
Kevin Francis Gray, ‘Mid-career Retrospective’ Market Place Gallery, Armagh, 16 March – 13 April 2017.
Riann Coulter is curator of the FE McWilliam Gallery, Banbridge, Co Down.
1,2,5 Classical Romance’, James Cahill, Apollo, 10 December 2013, apollo-magazine.com
3,4 ‘Interview: Kevin Francis Gray’, by Chad Saville, Beautiful Savage, November 21, 2013, beautifulsavage.com