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Four Face Mobile

Four Face Mobile (part of original plaster), 1989
Cast bronze, antique black
patina, aluminum, and
stainless steel
Approx. 9 ½ x 10 ½ x 4 feet

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The Dichotomy of the Profile

For nearly thirty years, Elizabeth Strong-Cuevas has produced sculptures that take as their primary focus and exclusive subject the human face. The powerful combination of extreme stylization of detail and massive, simplified form that characterizes her work does not seek to describe an autobiographical vision of self, or portray and record the factual details of individual identity.

Rather, Strong-Cuevas has instinctively gleaned a number of iconic or archetypal approaches to figuration from the artistic record of archaic cultures that she admires. These include the immense, mysterious Easter Island stone heads, the great variety of representations of the deities worshiped by the Aztec and Mayan dynasties, and the largely abstract, architectural totems of Stonehenge.

However, Strong-Cuevas's aesthetic is not merely one of sympathetic primitivism. As if to emphasize this, she combines the symbolic or emblematic figuration so prevalent in ancient cultures with the industrial design styles of the twentieth century, such as moderne and art deco, that coincided with some of the greatest triumphs of the machine age. Like the archetypal sculptures of Constantin Brancusi, her art seeks to create totemic forms by instinctively blending additive and subtractive processes into a synthesis that expresses form as a unique result of the artist's interaction with a particular material.

Strong Cuevas's objects are classically modern, or rather classical objects in modernist guises: throughout her compositions, she combines a mixture of geometric and organic forms to create monumental icons that project a functional positivism similar to that associated with the aerodynamic streamlining of utilitarian design and mass-production manufacturing.

Alluding to some of the most notable technological advancements of the twentieth century through the use of precise geometric shapes within a figurative context, she confirms Plato's observation, in the dialogues of Philebus, that when compared with the relative virtues associated with natural beauty, "Straight lines and circles, and the plane or solid figures which are formed out of them by turning lathes, rulers, and compasses" are the only things that "are eternally and absolutely beautiful."

For similar reasons, Strong-Cuevas largely eschews the emotional overtones of color. Like moderne and deco artists and designers, she prefers to reinforce the corporeality of her essentially imagistic compositions through the tonal contrasts native to the textures and colors of her sculptural materials.

Perhaps even more important for Strong-Cuevas than surface appearance is the body of thought or belief that sculpture can represent. Like Aztec artisans who chose to carve primarily in basalt, greenstone, porphyry, or other cherished volcanic stones as a means of best representing the tumultuous richness of their region, she uses aluminum, bronze, and stainless steel to reinforce the specifically modern characteristics of her figures.

While the Aztecs expressed life as a unity of opposites by including Tlaloc, the god of water and rain, and Huitzilopochtli, the sun god, in sanctuaries conjoined within the Great Temple of Tenochtitlan, Strong-Cuevas's profiles embody the duality of existence by underscoring the polarities inherent in the form of a mask of the image of a silhouette, rendering each capable of functioning as both a descriptive container and a protective barrier.

One of the primary strategies she uses to achieve this is the multiple perspective, which is often expressed classically, as in the radically different rear and frontal aspects projected in the impassive features of Broken Face (1992).

Significantly, Strong-Cuevas bisects her figure from top to bottom with a vertical cleft that reinforces the contrasts between a concealing, fašade-like structure (back view) and a revealing but ultimately protective mask (front view). By contrast, the multiplicity of a singular perspective is expressed in Triptych (1981), where the dichotomy between individual and collective identity is heightened by the artist's decision to construct a sculpture that accommodates opened and closed positions.

This allows and even encourages the viewer to physically transform what is initially a totemic facial fašade into an abstracted but nonetheless representational emblem. Once the doorlike segments of this fašade are swung on their hinges to the open position, what were previously facial components take on aspect of sheltering arms; what was previously understood to be a solitary, cyclopean eye now stands as the head of a figure whose only other prominent feature, its heart, is suggested by a slotted receptacle that protrudes from its chest.

In Head V (1978), a stainless steel dome functions as a reductive, extremely simplified container for the artist's figurative component. Like a machine casing, this hollow form provides a protective, utilitarian setting that manifests the outline of a frontal visage through a combination of silhouette and negative shape. The central object contained within this casing is comprised of the primary features of the face's vertical axis—chin, lips, nose—and augmented by one eye. Double-sided, this freestanding obelisk rotates within the dome to reveal positions in which facial features are alternately "open" and "closed."

Head V is part of a series of five sculptures that were originally intended to be viewed as a group; this series prefigured the artist's subsequent preoccupation with projecting a group identity through serial imagery.

In fact, in much of her work Strong-Cuevas uses serialism as a sculptural means toward achieving what are ultimately pictorial ends. This can be seen in the maquette for Running Heads (1981-1983), where a stylized profile view of nose, lips, and chin are isolated into facial contours that are linked in a repeated counterpoint of object and accompanying visual image.

Similarly, the repeated, flanking views of the same silhouette in Four Face Mobile (1989) create interlocking echoes that underscore the confluence between interior and exterior dimensions and similarly contradictory images of self. Each section of Four Face Mobile is capable of rotating independently on its own axis, allowing a viewer to mentally or physically alter the arrangement of the sculpture from planar image to highly sculptural construction.

In other works Strong-Cuevas expresses her confluence of positive and negative space architectonically, in terms of interior and exterior location. Unlike many of her other large-scale sculptures, which stress the duality between exterior appearances and interior states of being, Arch III (1985) is an imposing oval infinity symbol containing the outline of two profiles whose rudimentary characteristics are juxtaposed on the front and back of the arch.

Just as she often uses seriality to produce a pictorial or imagistic response to the innate physicality of sculpture, Strong-Cuevas further reinforces the back-to-front opposition in Arch III through the use of a traditional platform pedestal that specifies several vantage points for the viewer instead of a perambulatory, in-the-round view. Functioning as a vaulted portal, Arch III merges human and architectural features to evoke the mute monumentality of one of Stonehenges's stone megaliths.

Two Face Telescope (1990 updates and expands on this prehistoric theme: carefully machined aluminum and stainless steel simultaneously create the sweeping lines and streamlined details associated with elements of moderne style while lending a metaphorical context to what are primarily architectonic structures.

Again, Strong-Cuevas's massive figures create meaning by enforcing specific perspectives: the juxtaposed sculptural profiles of Two Face Telescope outline negative images that parallel the contours of each of two pillared structures. Linking these two angular forms and reinforcing the artist's focus on multiple perspectives on individual reality, a connective "telescope" serves as both a symbolic eye and a portal between two extremes.

This telescopic approach, which is a recurrent motif in Strong-Cuevas's work, is important to the artist for both the visionary and technological associations it implies. For example, in Pipe Face VI (1989) the telescopic form replaces the eye, transforming a freestanding profile into an oracular totem that simultaneously suggests the visionary sweep of an all-seeing eye and a precise, tunnel-vision intimation of future events. On the other hand, in Three Eye Sky (1989) the artist represents the common beliefs and shared aspirations of a community through a telescopic eye whose degree of sky-searching vision is supported by the repeated forms of three stylized figure/profiles.

Strong-Cuevas has streamlined and generalized the human countenance in order to more clearly embody her belief in the inherent duality of life. In each of her compositions, oppositional viewpoints are most often suggested by creating different readings on a single work that are dictated by reading each object from two classical viewpoints—front and back—in order to achieve the synthesis of a unified whole.

Thus, Strong-Cuevas's work asserts the interconnected nature of the human condition; neither intrinsically optimistic or pessimistic, her sculptural combinations act as surrogates for the intertwined positive and negative actions that, taken together, signify the dichotomy of human existence.

Originally published in the exhibition catalogue, Elizabeth Strong-Cuevas: The Dichotomy of the Profile, Marisa Del Re Gallery, New York, 1991.

 

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