Sunday, July 2, 1995
Source: Philadelphia Inquirer
By Victoria Donohoe, INQUIRER ART CRITIC
As with many other artists, the contents of an artwork are important
and are a determining factor in shaping Christopher Cairns' sculptures.
This Haverford artist is exhibiting numerous bronze heads and three
standing bronze figures outdoors at Michener Art Museum. Here is
a lively exhibit seeking a breath of fresh air outside.
Reverence to the human figure and the human spirit is the response
Cairns is inviting. His sculptures are not only the product of serious
ambition and considerable attainment. They are in their very abstraction
fundamentally identifiable and substantially realistic.
For Cairns, the important consequence of a return to, or more accurately
a stronger affirmation of, content was a renewed fascination with
the condition of humanity. His predilection for universal statements
about themes of love, death, metamorphosis, redemption and violence
are combined here with a striving for expressive means able to give
form to his highly individualistic perceptions of man's place in
nature. The show illuminates central aspects of his development.
It lets us see that Cairns has not so much reached a culmination
in his work as he has carved out a territory of his own to explore
and build on.
His stately Synagogue figure, relating to work of the same name
on Strasbourg Cathedral's south portal in France, and his Angel
with Nails, poignant with the transient energy of its gesture (a
piece partly inspired by a medieval French wooden figure at New
York's Metropolitan Museum) are a reminder, if needed, that good
sculpture need not be innovative or risky. It just requires positive
features that may include strength, elegance or sensitivity, with
other parts that come together in a convincing way.
By contrast, the monumental-size heads, with very little detail
on their surfaces, all tend to look alike at first glance, the way
sycamore trees look alike unless we take the time to examine them
more closely. Repetition of these upright shapes conveys some degree
of a powerful universal truth about human beings and their separateness
despite a common thread of their relationship to each other. It
harmoniously unifies these heads meant to be viewed from the front,
underscoring their vertical rhythms.
So, by some standards, Cairns is a "conservative" artist,
bound to conventional imagery, secure in his handling of the traditional
medium of bronze. But his work also illustrates why we should not
get locked into labels. Finally, Cairns is not alone in his struggle
to renew American sculpture, but is a part of an excellent group
of artists who have included his late colleague Jonathan Silver
- the difference between them being the difference between a white
oak and a copper beech.
Also at Michener: Some of Katharine Steele Renninger's paintings
have achieved near-icon status in Bucks County. Living and working
in Newtown, Renninger has made her artistic statement out of the
architectural ornament and everyday objects of the region. Many
of those paintings are featured in her 40-year retrospective exhibit
At her best, Renninger performs an act of sympathetic transformation
upon Bucks County. Victorian gingerbread porches, older winding
staircases, wicker furniture and a spinning wheel, apple crates
and bird cages, old louvered shutters. Those objects in her paintings
aren't emblems of the life of the region in themselves, but emblems
of a Bucks County culture which was deeply attached to the period
that produced such artifacts. Renninger records with art a stage
in history. And she does so plentifully supplied with allusion.
Renninger has an effervescent imagination when it comes to selecting
her motifs. These subjects are intimate without ever including the
human figure. While the tempo runs quiet and deep here, the technique
she uses is extremely precise and articulate. Her structuring mind
transforms everyday objects into intricate, almost abstract patterns,
which she smoothes into "presentable" images, painting
them in subdued earth tones, never in bright, bouncing colors. This
approach has emerged through a painting series begun in the late-
Renninger's work has long aimed to create an aura of the unexplained
and the mysterious. Extension of space by various methods opens
the painting surface in an unorthodox but coherent manner. Patterns
of Victorian architecture and design in particular have provided
one of Renninger's most reliable compositional methods for dividing
space into easily manageable areas allowing strong and effective
The most recent manifestation of her quest to become even more
local and to find the universal through the particular: Renninger
has begun to paint market veggies. This is more of a departure than
it might seem. Her previous interest in richness of effect to the
point at which it approaches decay isn't necessarily something the
Central Bucks Chamber of Commerce would love. Such paintings can
have the melancholy of social realism. But freshly harvested cabbages?
They lighten things up a bit. Still, in the long run, things, living
or inanimate, tell Renninger what to do.
IF YOU GO
* Michener Art Museum, 138 S. Pine St, Doylestown. Cairns to Oct.
29, Renninger to Sept. 10. Tuesdays through Fridays, 10 a.m. to
4:30 p.m., Saturdays and Sundays 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. For more information,