Friday, June 17

marble dreams

To sense the meanings that marble gives to any sculpture, a viewer needs to know how the work of pushing, chipping, dusting, and gouging can occupy the mind. Marble is something that sculptors work on, but it is also something they think about. Marble has a specific kind of hardness. It is woody, meaning it can sometimes be pushed back or "peeled" in slivers. A chisel can dig down, curve, and come back out like a sharp knife in wood. But marble is also dry and friable, and it powders like chalk. Sculptors are constantly preoccupied with the feeling that marble is like wood, perhaps because it is seldom true: it is more like a dream, a kind of half-way version of the Pygmalion story where the artist dreams that the marble turns into wood instead of flesh. People also say that marble is like skin, but that is also a bit of a dream since marble outshines skin: it is glossier and smoother than any skin could be. It is notions like these, and not stories about technical excellence, that make marble an absorbing subject for a life's work. It is cold stone that dreams of being wood, and even skin. A sculpture might conjure thoughts of hard chiseling with a heavy mallet, or whittling, as if it were wood, or caressing, as if it were skin. Any viewer can appreciate the accomplishment of making stone into fingers and leaves, but in a more important, bodily way, marble is about the different motions and emotions that go with stone, wood, and skin.

-- James Elkins What Painting Is