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Human Form

Peter Briggs talks about one of his last UA shows, featuring the works of 'Three Arizona Sculptors'

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One of the last shows Peter Briggs will curate for the University of Arizona Museum of Art went up last week.

Three Arizona Sculptors: Curt Brill, Don Reitz, Nobuhito Nishigawara is an elegant--and wild--exhibition celebrating not only sculpture's many media, but the human body as well. But these sculptures hardly depict the perfect human form.

Nishigawara's white porcelain pieces come closest to the classical ideal, but his female busts sprout unlikely body parts in the strangest places. Arms emerge from the top of a head; buttocks erupt on the shoulder blades; breasts protrude under the armpits. Brill specializes in women, too, but he creates attenuated giantesses in cast bronze, endowed with wasp waists, enormous feet and tactile metallic skin. Reitz's tall ceramic works, in multi-colors from olive to ochre, embody the merest allusion to homo sapiens.

"I chose (Reitz's) pieces because of their suggestion of the figure," Briggs said. "They're not really figurative--they're just columnar."

Nevertheless, the human body, however loosely defined, is the show's unifying theme.

"I was interested in doing a sculpture show, something figurative," Briggs said. "This show is a nice range of artists. They're all about 23 years apart--young, middle age and older."

At 30, Nishigawara, of Tempe, is the youngster; Tucson's Brill is 52; Clarksdale resident Reitz is 75. And each of them works in dramatically different materials, with Nishigawara deploying pure white porcelain, Brill cast bronze and Reitz salt-fired ceramics.

"Don Reitz is a legend," Briggs noted, "one of the most important ceramic artists in the United States. His work grew out of abstract expressionism; he retired to Arizona after a big career in New York and Europe."

As he spoke, Briggs sat in the gallery he will be forced to vacate June 30 after almost 15 years at the UAMA. This spring, museum director Charles Guerin, on the job less than four years, notified Briggs he would not be renewing his annual contract. (See "Paint It Black," April 1.) Chief curator Briggs has a sterling reputation and a track record of some 100 wide-ranging exhibitions, from a show of ancient Egyptian work on up to this spring's gorgeous Jasper Johns print show. But under university rules, Briggs has no right of appeal, and at the end of this month, he will be out of a job.

Briggs went so far as to say that his departure was "unexpected," but said he preferred to talk less about his own misfortunes and more about the art he's assembled. He noted that he placed Nishigawara's strange white busts in a statuary procession in two rows, with four pieces on either side, and a Nefertiti-like figure at the end.

"The reason I set it up like this was to re-create the feel of a European museum or the Met (New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art). It's like a hallway of marble busts."

The serene arrangement makes the surprise of what Nishigawara is really up to even more extreme. The artist says in a gallery handout that he was influenced by 19th-century Italian stone carvings. His deft handling of the porcelain surely owes something to the art of his native Japan as well. His female heads are exquisitely rendered, their every curl fastidiously fashioned. With their tresses piled up and trussed with ribbons, the women look like so many Second Empire Josephines from Napoleonic days.

His second inspiration, he says, is the beauty of women's bodies; he claims that he's merely rearranging their beautiful parts. But this earnest statement could be a colossal goof. His surrealistic women suggest the handiwork of humorous mad scientist more than a sincere admirer of female forms. And his seemingly random--and sometimes nightmarish--assemblages owe something to the surrealists' preoccupation with chance.

"Aaryanna," 2003, has a leg growing out of the nape of her neck. Poor "Lapata," 2003, balances her head on a plate of ceramic leaves, with the help of a pair of arms arising from her hair. The Nefertiti look-alike, "Nabbina," 2003, also looks like a Saturday Night Live conehead--but the cone metastasizing from her forehead turns into a dangling leg.

"Padma," 2003, is lovely and straightforward at first glance. But if you look closely, you'll find a nipple on the back of her head, and a smirk on her face. She's even winking, maybe cluing us in that Nishigawara is pulling our leg, wherever he may find one.

Brill's works may be more conventional, but they're downright exhilarating. His seven large figures and four tiny ones, all in deliciously textured cast metal, look like seashore sand-drip sculptures that are about to melt. Brill has the uncanny ability to make his very hard material seem soft and yielding. The metal still bears the marks of his fingerprints in the soft clay that preceded the casting. And attenuated--or even Mannerist, as the scholarly Briggs put it--as the stretched-out bodies are, the sculptures lovingly evoke female grace.

The sleeping "Joanne Reclining" positively melts into her granite platform. She's twisted face-down on her hard, makeshift bed, and one giant foot and serpentine arm hang over the side. Both appendages seem to have stretched in sleep. And within his narrow palette of metallic tones, Brill gets a pleasing variety of colors. The enormous "Michelle," standing maybe 12 feet high in a bed of unpolished river rock, may be mottled gray and black, but luminous metallic golds seep through her dark "skin." Her legs crossed like a modern dancers, arms forthrightly on her hips, she's the very picture of tensile strength.

Reitz at 75 is still spry enough to wield what Briggs calls these "huge, heavy things," 4-foot-tall ceramic pieces that weigh hundreds of pounds. Like the gestural Abstract Expressionist painters, Reitz relies on an element of chance. He uses an antique salt process that's got a mind of its own. He puts a raw clay sculpture into the kiln, fires it up and then adds the salt. The resulting chemical reaction creates the glaze, and makes for strange and wonderful colors and textures.

Not all of his glossy pieces suggest a human body. "Vessel With Closed Lid," 2001, a satisfying, fat, round thing, pays homage to the basic pot. Its olive-green glaze drips down over its swelling curve to blue-gray below. "Grey Column With Flat Tap," 2003, more human-like, is a tall cylinder with a delicious layering of overlapping lines, and olive overlapping gray.

At least a couple of the works seem to conjure up dancers. "Vessel With Hole," 2003, is a tall pot with handles, licks of flame orange, a nice grainy surface and a twirling skirt. "Precarious," 2003, could be a teetering ballerina. Colored in glossy red-brown, tan and beige, incised with lines, the jaunty figure has arms and a neck of sorts, a wide oval body and a skirt sailing joyously outward into the gallery. But she's endearingly out of balance.

"It's my favorite," Briggs said mischievously. "It looks like it's going to tip over."

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