The Canadian Art Database

Robert Fones

Tom Dean's Sculptural Canon
Art Gallery of York University, November-December 1992

C Magazine #37, Spring 1993.
[ 1,866 words ]

Artists in ancient Egypt used three conventional poses in monolithic stone sculpture: sitting, standing with feet together (for women) and standing with the left foot forward (for men). Ancient Greek sculptors adopted the one-foot forward model for their male kouros and used the feet-together model for both sexes. They also invented the contraposto standing figure with the weight shifted to one leg, a stance that introduced a new element of naturalism into sculpture, acknowledging that the human body does tire of standing. The basic figurative poses have continued in sculpture up to the present day, primarily because there are a limited number of positions the body can assume without falling over or collapsing from exhaustion. Tom Dean's recent exhibition at the Art Gallery of York University (November-December 1992) includes works that follow this classical sculptural tradition. While Dean adheres to the basic constraints of the body and the ways in which it can be posed, he also introduces elements of unnaturalism, diverging from the classical ideals and challenging notions of sculpture as inert and arrested.

Dean was invited by Catherine Crowston, assistant curator at the AGYU and curator of this exhibition, to use the newly installed facilities of York's Lou Odette foundry and to exhibit the products of this working residency at the gallery. However, due to problems with the ventilation system, the bronze casting was actually done off campus at MST Bronze. Graduate and undergraduate students from York University's Fine Art programme provided the assistance necessary to complete the project.

Dean and his helpers worked from late August until the exhibition opened in November. The results of these three productive months of casting are five works exhibited in two adjoining galleries. The three works in the main gallery were all bronze castings: two severed female right legs, three dogs with extra-long tails and a cluster of sperm-tubas. Several dozen life-size babies cast in pigment-blackened cement lie, sit or crawl on the floor of the second gallery in which a large bronze amphora atop a hair-pedestal was also displayed.

The most extensive of these works is the group of life-size babies (all male) in various poses — sitting, crawling, lying on their backs, bums up, etc. — cast in sufficient numbers to create an overwhelming nursery of babies, more than any parent would want to look after at one time. Unlike putti, who float mysteriously in mid-air, these babies are gravity-bound. They exhibit remarkable inventiveness in their ground-hugging repertoire of self-supporting postures. Dean has captured the five most common ones.

Dean conflates nursery with foundry, arranging the babies in a haphazard group on the bare concrete floor. As is typical of his work, the faithful naturalism of these babies is undermined by their sheer number, by the clone-like repetition of standard poses and by their blackened and eroded surfaces. There are enough repeats from each of the five moulds to give the impression of a multitude of babies, each engaged in typical self-absorbed baby activity. Poses and gestures that would be considered endearing in a single real baby become diabolical when mimicked by other identical babies within the group. The repetition of poses suggests a biological process run amok or a vision of parental hell. This biological apprehension may reflect Dean's own experience with his identical twins, born in 1987. In a text that accompanied The Varieties of Hell series published in Impulse (15:4, March 1990), Dean wrote with unrestrained candour: 'You make love and then your wife goes to the hospital and they cut her open and send her home scarred and flabby with a livid vampire clinging to her breast . . . it has a voice invented in hell. It appears miserable to be alive, its disability is hideous, and its [sic] wired to every vulnerable nerve in your body.' The duplication of physical characteristics in Dean's identical twins perhaps prompted him to suspect a biological potential for unlimited mass production.

The pigment-blackened cement used to cast the babies reinforces this hellish undertone, drawing associations with death-casts from Pompeii or forgings by the Roman god, Vulcan. The air bubbles, voids and missing anatomy resulting from incomplete castings suggest physical corrosion or 'seconds' that slipped by quality control. Such sinister thoughts are somewhat alleviated, however, by the life-like appearance of the babies and by their apparent self-contentment.

Baby anatomy is oddly vegetative, a fact brought to the fore in Dean's concurrent Cold City Gallery exhibition in which half-babies protrude from the floor in rightside-up / upside-down positions, with apparently inconsequential distinction between arms and legs, heads and genitals. The fact that the casts in both exhibitions are of babies suggests an analogy between the casting process and human gestation. The duality of human sexual generation — male and female, penis and vagina, womb and baby — is even explicit in the terminology of the casting process in which a 'female' mould produces a 'male' cast and is literally true in Dean's exhibitions since all the babies are male.

The theme of biological development and repetition is explored in another work in which sperm-like forms appear to evolve into tuba-like forms, some acquiring features such as a mouth-piece and flared horn in the process. Each piece of this multi-component cast-bronze work appears to be arrested at a different point in its development. Like the babies, these pseudo-organic forms can assume a limited number of poses: they either support themselves on their mouth-pieces or horns, nuzzle into cute kiss-curls or raise their undeveloped tails into the air like rattlesnakes about to strike. The final stage of development is not a functional tuba (the end is closed off and there are no valves) but a biomorphic object whose ambiguous function makes maturation seem whimsical and somewhat pathetic.

The bronze casts of two right legs with vulvas are similar in general form to the sperm-tubas: large at one end, small at the other, with an orifice from which something might issue and, in this case, into which something might enter. One leg / vulva has been cast in a pose that indicates a female body on its back, legs open, and the other, a body on its side — although this is extrapolated from the evidence supplied by the leg and vulva alone. Consistent with Dean's affinity to classical principles of sculpture, the legs are displayed in two positions that could be naturally assumed by a supine female body.

Legs and vulvas detached from the body are not common subject matter for sculpture. Consequently, and particularly because the legs are female, these bronze legs are not free of haunting suggestions of amputation or dismemberment. However, there are tell-tale signs that dispel most if not all such macabre thoughts: the legs are both right legs, eliminating speculation about parts from a single body; the flexed positions indicate living not dead limbs; the compression of the thigh against the floor in both casts suggests the presence of the entire body when plaster was applied to it to create moulds; and finally, the non-finito surface where the leg would normally be joined to the body is a classical sculptural device indicating a deliberate aesthetic decision to isolate this particular body part.

The legs / vulvas are models intended to demonstrate a function of the leg as vagina protector and opener. 'Living things evolve the means to be selectively hidden, or to appear selectively.' (Tom Dean, Impulse, 15:1, Winter 1989) Not surprisingly, the more open vulva occurs on the leg cast from a woman lying on her back with her legs open. Here is the female sexual organ that allows intercourse to take place. Here is where the penis goes in and the baby comes out. In spite of their anatomical realism, these detached legs seem to have a bizarre life of their own. One can imagine them thrashing across the floor trying to stand yet, like the sperm-tubas, limited by their rudimentary form. By isolating a single biological function, Dean illustrates the interdependent functions that comprise a living organism.

The piece consisting of three dogs illustrates the traditional classical sculptural poses of the ancient Egyptian canon, albeit in canine versions. One dog rests on the floor; one sits on its haunches; the other stands on four legs. These positions are the most common and natural ones for dogs to assume. The poses have been used by the ancient Assyrians in their lion gates, by the Egyptians in their jackals and Sphinx and by the Etruscans in the Capitalino Wolf. Unlike the babies' poses, which indicate degrees of physical development or self-taught mobility, the dogs' poses reflect the down, sit and heel positions learned through rigorous training. At the same time, the poses could also suggest varying degrees of alertness to some 'call of the wild'. The dogs' presumed domestication is at odds with their attentiveness to this external stimulus. Similarly, their preposterously long tails suggest both extreme breeding and genetic disorder.

Tails, manes and hair have always presented problems to sculptors because the fine structure of hair cannot be easily simulated in marble, wood or bronze. Classical artists simplified its form into sculptural masses or stylized bas-relief patterns. Dean's solution has been to use actual hair. Beginning with the hair-sprouting table-tops of his ambitious sculptural investigations between 1985 and 1988 (an ongoing series of 40 tables exhibited in various locales and collectively titled Excerpts from a Description of the Universe), he has used hair as both subject matter and sculptural medium, exploiting its insubstantial materiality, its extruded process of growth and its evocation of the living body.

Hair appears again in the last work in this show, a torso-sized amphora supported by a wig-like hair pedestal. In this piece, the flowing hair completely covers 360 degrees of an imagined head, leaving no room for a face. The amphora's similarity to the body (it has two arms, a waist and a mouth) and the way it is displayed on top of a pseudo-head gives it a morphological ambiguity characteristic of much of Dean's sculptural work. The form of the amphora reflects an interest in clay modelling and throwing, two traditional sculptural processes Dean has used extensively in the last ten years. Indeed, the piece appears as a drawing in Tom Dean Drawings 1985-1990, a catalogue from an exhibition of his work at the Agnes Etherington Art Centre in Kingston. The long, flowing hair of the pedestal and the classical image of women as water-bearers tends to give this work a female identity, as if this solitary form were the guardian figure or 'mother' for the throng of male babies placed with her in the same gallery space. The morphological similarity of hair and flowing water reinforces this goddess or source-mother interpretation.

While much of Dean's previous work was based on morphological permutation and transformation, his recent sculptures are products of a generative process that mimics nature's, giving birth to well-formed organisms as well as mutations. In the naturalistic cast sculptures (babies, legs and dogs), the permutations are subtler and seemingly more intrinsic, focusing attention on the biology, sexuality or sociology of the organism itself. His departure from the conventions of classical sculptural tradition prompts a search for the cause of this artistic as well as biological iconoclasm.

C Magazine #37, Spring 1993.

Text: © Robert Fones. All rights reserved.

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