The Splendid Heads of Catherine Eckdahl

In addition to being an accomplished painter, Cathy Eckdahl also makes remarkable sculptures: heads put together by tight assemblage, shown in glass boxes as artifacts from a museum or contemporary relics in the manner of Joseph Beuys. In some ways close to the fetishistic sculptures of African tribal arts, Eckdahl’s works project a chthonic power—an unusual achievement for someone who is working in an artworld that has relatively small interest in the underworld. It is hard to find works that resonate like these; their attributes connect them to indigenous culture and belief systems that are structured according to a system of otherworldly implications. I do not mean by this that the artist is committed to a culture or time not her own; instead, she uses collage to bring together different elements that coalesce into a finished piece of art. The technique, of course, is modernist, but the results are entirely contemporary, new in the sense that they communicate original form and content when seen in their entirety. Sculpture originated with people’s need to give memorial to the dead; and Eckdahl makes it clear that she is remembering other kinds of art beyond her current milieu.

In one piece, the feeling is distinctively African. With a shock of hair tied together in a ponytail issuing from the top of the head, a small pedestal supporting the head with antlers painted black and white, and the face of a wild animal, the sculpture looks fearsome and aggressive. Nails surround the lower half of the head, where the jaws would be, and a sharp array of teeth separates the fur from the nails. This is a piece that refuses to accommodate itself to its educated audience, taking sides instead with the wild, namely, that which simply cannot be tamed. This kind of instinctive freedom occurs in much of the art, two- as well as three-dimensional, of Eckdahl; at the same time, she is capable of subtle works like the Buddha’s head, which expresses the timeless theme of calm insight in the face of adversity. The Buddha’s facial outlines are constructed from nails, and his upper head, covered with pearl-like spheres, is decorated with the top knot that is said to be a defining characteristic. The stone pedestal is covered on the top and the sides with Chinese characters, which site the Buddha within an enveloping supportive culture. There is a wide polarity, in both style and content, between the fetishistic head and the Buddha’s, but Eckdahl handles the extremes of feeling very well.

Sculpture thus becomes a neutral medium that can be used to express chthonic power and sublimated serenity. Sadly, both approaches to life and art seem unpopular in the endless labyrinth of the contemporary art world, although correspondences can be seen in the assemblage sculptures of Alison Saar, the contemporary African-American artist. The bold tactility of Eckdahl’s art originates in a strong feeling for materials, what might be called their capacity for transformation and change. It is fair, then, to see these works as evidencing a mastery of both the part and the whole, with the latter contending for a place where the spirit(s) can be given its due. Additionally, it is interesting to see how Eckdahl’s borrowings of iconography never result in appropriation, but turn toward inspired innovation instead. The reason for Eckdahl’s ingenuity may in fact be found in the recent history of sculpture, which only now is reaching beyond modernist formalism and a patriarchal hierarchy. There is an entire generation of women now active in sculpture—one thinks of Rachel Whiteread in England, Lin Tianmiao in China, and Petah Coyne in America—to which Eckdahl belongs.

One of the most inspired heads in Eckdahl’s group is covered with nails—a persistent item in her sculpture—on top of which a couple dozen of monarch butterflies perch. The force of this work derives from the differing tactility and strength of the steel and butterflies; the former conveys strength and a connection to industry, while the latter’s fragility is part of its attractiveness. Contraries thus delight the viewer, who is taken with the creativity of the juxtaposition. There is a deeper connection as well; the nails resonate an attachment to human craft and culture, while the butterflies occur in the world of nature. This is another kind of juxtaposition, one in which different associations come together in art. It can be said that Eckdahl likes to combine opposing elements and transform them into the unity of a fresh gestalt; this is true of her materials, her references to cultures and epochs, and her practice of two- and three-dimensional arts. What comes through in her work is the practice of joy, the sheer ebullience and enthusiasm of making art. The heads thus speak to us of other places, carrying us into sites and origins capable of generating mental and emotional change.

Jonathan Goodman