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New York: James Lee Byars: “The Figure of Death and The Moon Column” at Michael Werner through September 3rd, 2015

August 30th, 2015

Byars, during his formative years as an artist, lived and studied in Japan, thus developing an interest in Shinto and Noh stage plays. Shinto, a theology which argues for the existence of a divine essence in all things, and Noh, wherein actors employ codified, stylized gesticulations to represent the emotional states of their characters (and many times playing a human form inhabited by a supernatural being), undoubtedly influence the works currently on view. Through sculpture and installation, the artist, known for his perennial obsession with the physical embodiment of the concepts of “the Perfect,” or ultimate “Truth,” explores contradictions such as life and death, transience and permanence, and the physical and the spiritual, often using transparent combinations of simple forms with materials that easily trigger vivid associations.  Through his work, he suggests a paradoxical communion between these alternative human conceptions. In this case, it becomes unclear whether a personification of these ideals could exist at all.   

James Lee Byars, The Figure of Death (detail) (1987), via Art Observed
James Lee Byars, The Figure of Death (detail) (1987), via Art Observed

The two sparkling, 9-foot tall marble monoliths at Werner Gallery’s uptown location speak most intuitively to the idea of perfection.  The Figure of Death, fashioned by the upright stacking of ten unblemished marble cubes, and The Moon Column, a delicate, streamlined, hollowed-out half-oval, each occupy the direct center of two of the gallery’s solemn, otherwise vacant rooms, resplendent under a series of spotlights.  The paradigmatic medium, combined with the geometric composition of the figures, their intimidating scale, and their placement in a space reserved for contemplation, necessarily cull a sense of piety from within the viewer, prompting association with the sacred geometry of classical temples, or an elevated notion of an architectural ideal.

James Lee Byars, The Figure of Death (1987), via Michael Werner
James Lee Byars, The Figure of Death (1987), via Michael Werner

James Lee Byars, The Moon Column (1990), via Art Observed
James Lee Byars, The Moon Column (1990), via Art Observed

On the other hand, the abrupt, vertical, bipedal sectionalizing of parts in The Figure of Death, with the disconcerting, airy curve of Moon Column combined with the inescapable, corporeal self-awareness the viewer experiences upon circumnavigating the larger-than-life structures, comes an anthropomorphizing of the sculptures, that questions the existence of idealized concepts of death or perfection outside of our own bodily perception. 

James Lee Byars: The Figure of Death and The Moon Column is on view at Michael Werner Gallery until September 3rd.

James Lee Byars, The Moon Column (1987), via Michael Werner
James Lee Byars, The Moon Column (1987), via Michael Werner

— J. Berman

Read more:
James Lee Byars: The Figure of Death and The Moon Column [Michael Werner]

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Liu Ye

Liu Ye- Contemporary Artist’s Page

Liu Ye- Sperone Westwater

More info about the artist coming soon.

Comments: info@artobserved.com