Simon Doucet at Gallery d’Arte
Simon Doucet is a French-born stone carver who Is currently working in New York, where he had a show at Gallery d’Arte in Chelsea. An avowed lover of American soul music, the title of his show was “Soul of Stone.” Like the music the artist likes so much, his sculptures are sinuous and sensual, reflecting both erotic feeling and technical skill. Carved stone no longer has much of a following in contemporary art, which has become absorbed with intellectualized perception and, often, high technology. But as Doucet’s show points out, there is a place for carving, whose artisanal beginnings, historically speaking, give his sculptures a dignity and chthonic power not so easily found in art made now. Stone is a simple but profoundly emotive material, whose ancient history as a medium for carving gives it a reach that begins far back in the past. The evocative, gently curving lines of Doucet’s art indicate that one can make use of this past in a way that does justice to art history, both recent and far away. Although inevitably Doucet’s art looks backward, its strength is that it looks ahead as well, in ways that fasten its existence in art of this time.
But even if Doucet only valued the historical in his practice, this would not necessarily be a bad thing. Making work that technically and formally bridges the contemporary with the past is an activity that remains respectable, and sometimes even inspired. Doucet certainly doesn’t need help from the past alone, but his references not only to a modernist sculptor like the Swiss artist Jean Arp but also to 19th-century French academic art widen his references and enable him to build off existing models. This does not mean his art turns into a sterile exercise—quite the contrary, his historical methods—he currently works as a monitor for the sculpture department at New York City’s Art Student League, a center for teaching traditional art skills—provide him with a depth enabling him to speak to present concerns. Part of his contemporaneity comes from the eroticization of his forms, which reveal an interest bordering on obsession in the female body. Again, while the implications of the forms relate to historical examples, the abstraction found in the art shows just how committed Doucet is to making his mark in the current moment. He is deeply aware of the innate beauty of stone and makes the most of its tactile quality.
One can see this happening in the wonderfully graceful sculpture, made of marble, entitled Découvre mon coeur. The white marble, marked with brown blemishes, has been shaped into a head and a body finishing at the end of the hips. A long, thin line cuts into the middle of the torso, opening the space within and allowing the viewer to see another crevice in the back of the figure. The head is biased at an angle, as if the woman were looking down at something. All in all, Découvre mon coeur owes something to the gentle curves seen in the work of Brancusi, but it is fair to say that the work is not an act of scholarship. One might also think of the archaic Cycladic sculptures, some three to six thousand years old. Inevitably, in the work the very old has become the very new. It is actually quite clear that Douet is taking a large risk here; it could easily happen that his historicism would overwhelm his art. But as usually takes place in his work, the backward glance is transformed into a frontward-facing assertion, in which academicism becomes a base but not the governing totality of the sculpture’s experience.
Un bijou de femme, another marble, female figure, looks like a mixture of the modernist—and classical—simplicities of Arp and Brancusi. Female curves overlap and twist upward, rising from a very simple, roughly cut, flat pedestal. The erotic twists and turns of this work cannot be denied; the viewer might also think of the art of Rodin, the great French artist devoted to sexual feeling. The major question today facing work of this sort is whether or not it is anachronistic, dominated by an overly close reading of the past, in particular 19th-century French academic art. The truth is that the past always lives on in contemporary work, especially in a genre such as stone carving, whose tradition is great and cannot be denied. In the bronze piece entitled Uniquement le touché, a figure seems to have raised her back, so that it curves around above her as she rests on the ground. It is almost baroque in its curvilinear grace, but it approaches abstraction as well. The beauty of the form cannot be pushed aside—It is a nod to a time when deliberate deskilling was not part of the visual vocabulary. Doucet here, and most everywhere, is a scholar as well as an artist, but one whose reputation rests on the present and not the past.