by Rakshanda HussainJun 08, 2022
For almost four centuries, Val Gardena in the Dolomites range in northern Italy has nurtured a community of woodworkers whose sculptures have adorned many churches and cathedrals the world over. The region’s rich sculptural traditions, which are said to have their origins in modern-day Poland, have evolved over the years with its craftsmen employing their skills to meet secular and utilitarian demands, yet sacred art remains central to the valley’s cultural identity. Contemplation of the divine would come only naturally to those engaged in this work and this heritage seems a fitting foundation to understand the perennial, yet subjective spirituality of the sculptures of Gehard Demetz.
A lindenwood Brahma with a Caucasian boy child who is upright in posture but transposed horizontally, the Nataraja image merged with a girl child standing in attention and facing the flame of creation and destruction which he holds with his left hand, Ganesha and Lakshmi figures again with children juxtaposed against them in a similar manner – these are some of the latest in Demetz’s explorations, which seek to find expression for the artist’s notions of spirituality while inspecting the emotive power of specific divine forms. In the past the artist employed primarily Christian iconography as a yardstick to explore what he understood as a symbiotic reduction occurring when the sacred is layered with the innocent, and his foray into Hindu imagery is an early experiment to validate the universality of his observations. “The religious figure lost part of its spiritual strength and the child partly lost its childhood. In order to become one, both personalities had to give up something of themselves. A form emerged that had almost nothing to do with figuration. So, I started to use extraneous figures for myself to see if this ‘effect’ was retained,’ says Demetz.
His expansion into the iconography of foreign, non-European, craft practices with the creation of sculptures, which incorporate traditional Indian modes, also presents a curious narrative that is antithetical to the standard nature of influence as has been presented in art history through the 20th century. While hybridity has come to be accepted as the norm for contemporary artists in the global south and the referencing of European traditions have been frequent, it is not as frequent to come across a European artist whose interest in the orient is overtly formal rather than just philosophical. While recognising their divinity, Demetz’s intention is not to understand what his subjects represent but rather to understand how their figuration might become affected when mingled with his phantom children just as he had attempted with Christian icons in the past.
It might be said that it is not the religious icons but the children who are more central to Demetz’s work. Inspired by anthroposophy and the teachings of Rudolf Steiner, the children stare at the viewer with a hauntingly precocious countenance which, for the artist, reflects the wisdom of the ages that transmigrates through the subconscious of infants. These children represent an awareness of the collective consciousness that is mercifully rescinded with maturity and their sadness is indicative of the burden of civilisation. They hold within their innocence the memories of the countless atrocities committed by man in the name of politics and religion.
In describing his process, the artist says, “My sculptures are made piece by piece and the building up of the wooden elements I use recall the logic used in IT. This sort of process lets me add things and sculpt, take things away and sculpt, with the advantage over traditional sculpture. Like the children themselves, they are ideally shaped piece by piece and a few parts will fall off in their life cycle”. The rationale of their construction too seems to embody the transmutability of individual elements within ideologically loaded forms and, by extension, becomes an allegory for the dynamism of cultural and spiritual canons while pondering the ceiling for exchange. In the artist’s own words, “In the new works I try to incorporate even more elements into the sculpture, to see where I can feel a limit. How much information can this form support? Can I still find a harmony or is there chaos?”
Gehard Demetz’s sculptures were presented by Jack Shainman Gallery at Frieze LA in February 2020.