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Four Face Mobile

Four Face Mobile, 1989
Cast bronze, antique black
patina, aluminum and
stainless steel
Approx. 9 ½ x 10 ½ x 4 feet

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Doubleness in the Sculpture of Strong-Cuevas

…An artist is only an artist on condition that he is a double man and that there is not one single phenomenon of his double nature of which he is ignorant.
     - Charles Baudelaire, "On the Essence of Laughter"1

There are a number of striking features about the sculpture of Strong-Cuevas, but perhaps the most striking is their elevation of doubleness into a phenomenon in itself….

There is, then, an ingenious interplay—not to say uncertain oscillation—between separation and continuity, divergence and convergence, contradiction and unity in the sculptural busts of Strong-Cuevas….

The flexibility of Strong-Cuevas's sculpture shows their modernism—art traditionally has been fixed, especially sculpture, which seems necessarily immobile by reason of its usually heavy materials, inert in themselves and inherently difficult to move. The way the spectator re-arranges the sculptures shows a similar flexibility—indicates his or her shifting, disturbed sense of self and relationships with others or else stable sense of self and reciprocal relationships-a disclosure of subjectivity that is also modernist….

The more one reflects on it, the more complex Strong-Cuevas's doubleness looks. I believe its fundamental import is psychodynamic—it embodies emotional contradictions no one can escape. There is an inner drama to Strong-Cuevas's sculpture of the human self-image, as George Frankl calls it, that bespeaks the inner drama of the psyche and of human relationships: the problem of two (or many) others meeting as well of the encounter between the different others one has inside oneself that form one's psychic substance. Encounter with external others and between internal others dialectically overlap and reinforce each other in Strong-Cuevas's sculptures, which is partly what gives them their inner complexity and strange intensity. What makes them even more intense is that she strips the double drama to its fundamental terms and monumentalizes them, as though to convey their momentous importance for life. Whether literally small or large, Strong-Cuevas's sculptures are inherently grand in scale, as though to highlight the grand human issues they boldly engage. Much as Plato said that myth communicates, in however disguised a manner, what is paradoxically difficult to state because it is fundamental and peculiarly familiar, so Strong-Cuevas's sculptures state, in the form of a universal, mythical head, emotional and relational truths that are difficult to acknowledge and communicate because they are fundamental to our existence, not only at its deepest but also in everyday life.

Some of Strong-Cuevas's sculptures clearly belong to the planar tradition of modernism, while other works have a forceful, full-bodied, primitive look that is also modernist. She moves between the extremes with ease…

The ideogrammatic character of Strong-Cuevas's head is particularly evident in the remarkable Windows, 1998. As one moves around the work, one sees face after face, each reduced to its starkest essentials, so that it seems to be a cabalistic sign of a mysterious mind. (The heads follow a Mayan model, as Strong-Cuevas acknowledges in Mayan Wall, 1985.) They are framed within the grand head which is the sculpture as a whole—the ultimate ideogrammatic sign of introspection into the depths of the self. It confronts us with its meditative intimacy, and invites us to worship at and even enter one of the niches—for that is what they are—in which the ideogrammatic faces are set, taking our place among the enlightened ones.

Strong-Cuevas's heads are meant for shrines. The niche-like concavity in which many of them are set—numbers I through V in particular—suggests as much. The heads—or rather profiles—fuse with the niche, as it were, in Strong-Cuevas's various arches, which span the decade from 1985 to 1995. In these monumental works the profile becomes part of the frame of the niche, marking its opening as well as functioning as an object of spiritual worship and symbol of spiritual awakening. Indeed, the awe one has standing under or near one of these arches is a prelude to such awakening. They are sublime gateways to the inner world, symbolized by the profile.

Strong-Cuevas's sculptures clearly have a visionary character. It is symbolized by the eye that recurs in work after work, sometimes apotheosized as an absolute, as it were. It stares out at us from the totemic Obelisk, 1983, where it is the grand climax of a wildly surreal head, and counterbalances a wide open mouth. Strong-Cuevas regularly contrasts luminous, seemingly transparent and dark, even opaque metal, sometimes soft, sometimes hard (aluminum, iron, stainless steel, bronze), even as some surfaces seem both light and dark, a chiaroscuro effect that depends on the way the external light hits them. (In general, she has a modernist's—purist's—sensitivity to surface, both as a phenomenon in its own right and as expression, that is, the vehicle of otherwise inexpressible emotion.)

I want to suggest that this is the eye of God, more particularly the benign sun god. It is certainly an ancient symbol of spiritual enlightenment and redemption, appearing as the apex of the pyramid on the American one dollar bill. Feathered it is the symbol of the life renewing sun- the highest flying sky-bird- in ancient Egyptian mythology. It is this eye that heals the split—that brings separate if similar beings together, or at least holds them together precariously. For Strong-Cuevas's eye-telescope is essentially a pipe that is supported by the heads of which it is a part without being attached to them. It is an autonomous element inserted into them—binding them together tentatively. Pull it out, and the sculptures collapse—the heads no longer stand upright, let alone harmoniously relate. Clearly, the eye-telescope pipe represents the ego's capacity for insight as well as foresight...

It is a matter of choice whether one will try to have the perspective of eternity on the world which one sees all around one. Strong-Cuevas's works are best seen in nature, to convey their cosmic import. Revolving Sky Watch, with its huge eye-telescope, worthy of an observatory, makes this import particularly clear. The eye-telescope symbolizes sub specie aeternitatis, the grandest perspective of all—the perspective of God. As such the "thrust" of the pipe that symbolizes the eye-telescope conveys the whole thrust of Strong-Cuevas's work... (Virtually all of Strong-Cuevas's works, even her most silent profiles, incorporate a brisk, dynamic, determined line, the embodiment of energy, more precisely, of spiritualized or sublimated physical energy. Movement, both real and simulated, is a crucial aspect of Strong-Cuevas's sculpture, for it conveys the sense of inner transformation or process that is her basic "abstract emotional" subject matter.)

The symbolic eye-telescope pipe's deceptively simple projection embodies the complex idealism her sculpture projects: harmony and unity between individuals—an experience of community and shared purpose—on the basis of spiritual awareness, achieved introspectively, which is the only way such awareness can be achieved. Strong-Cuevas's sculptures invite us to turn inward—to identify with her contemplating heads—and encounter the primitive visionary self deep within us. It transcends the world by seeing it from the perspective of eternity—seeing it whole, in an all-encompassing way. Only when the self is whole—not divided against itself—can it see the world and nature whole, and thus inherently meaningful, rather than as a sum of contradictions that have no larger point than themselves. In short, Strong-Cuevas's sculptures are spiritual in import, which is why the splits within them are all the more poignant.


1. Charles Baudelaire, "On the Essence of Laughter," The Mirror of Art, ed. Jonathan Mayne (Garden City, NY: Anchor Doubleday, 1956), p. 153

Originally published in its entirety as "Widening the Split or Healing the Split? Doubleness in the Sculpture of Strong-Cuevas" in the exhibition catalogue, Premonitions in Retrospect: Strong Cuevas, Grounds for Sculpture, 1999.


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