Thom Puckey

Copyright 2017

Thom Puckey

Marco Senaldi on Thom Puckey's work for
The Prato Project

Puckey presents his series of recent sculptures, four of which are presented here for the first time, in a very coherent manner. The individual female figures, young and completely or partially nude, are invariably and disquietingly accompanied by the presence of modern weaponry. Sometimes their derivation from classical models is rather evident, as can be seen in A.V. with Knife and RPG-7 (2009), which recalls the famous posture of Ingres' Oedipus ; at her feet, as if derived from a previous age, there is still a tree trunk taken from ancient Greek art. Another example can be seen in Mitrailleuse (2008) where the prone figure is elongated in a moving pose that recalls certain nymphs or sylphs of neoclassical statuary. However a series of blatant facts make it clear that we cannot take Puckey as a mere quoter of the past: the meticulous rendering of the firearms and blades dressing the figures, together with the taste for anatomical detail, the sometimes agressive poses, the bodies themselves sometimes amputated, are open declarations of a strategy which doesn't refer culturally to the past; indeed the choice of a “high” material like monochrome marble is almost subversive with respect to the artist's intention.

To understand the current dynamics in the field of sculpture, we must first reconstruct this art's genetic development. Traditional sculpture arrives at three-dimensionality and matter after having been conceived via the two-dimensional means of drawing and via the preparatory model's reduced dimensions. For Puckey (but I would venture, in general for the artists who are dealing with sculpture today) statues are obsolete as an expressive choice in itself. They are not the end product of a lengthy creation process; rather they come from hidden processes, they are something to work towards by going backwards, starting from our usual way of relating to things today, that is via the technological mediation of photography, film or video. We mustn't forget that Thom Puckey, influenced early on by the Viennese Actionism movement, was intensely active as a performance artist in the 1970s and early 1980s; this made trained him in the expressive possibilities of the body, in its relational abilities and in how to render their image. His apprenticeship can still be seen in the artwork he produces today and, especially, in his use of live models for his sculpture. Many long posing sessions are required to establish the position of each figure and during these a great many photographs are taken, snapped from every angle in order to verify the subject's validity and how it will take shape in space. So it follows that the artist treats each model as a true performer in two senses: in that, with her body, she incarnates a living, unexpected form constituting an expressive possibility, and in that she is an actress playing a role, lending her face and body to an otherwise abstract idea.

For Thom Puckey, as for the great contemporary artists, art is tending to lose its symbolic value but it undoubtedly suffers the difficult condition of having to go through the mourning of this loss. Thus a statue, albeit executed in a “timeless” material like marble, is not the concretization of an ideal, nor even of womanly beauty; on the contrary, a real beauty, like that of a young model, prefigures the statue she will become (which is certainly true also for the other contemporary artists, from Anthony Gormley to Marc Quinn, who have chosen or who have fallen into figurative sculpture). As a result the statues of today are -- like in Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale -- petrified individuals rather than idealized stones. Having abdicated from their role as symbols, they take on a new one as symptoms; they are the mute, enigmatic and obstinately opaque proofs of an obscure event, of an ever-present enchantment, or of a terrible trauma which refuses to stay buried in the past.

This “ontological mutation” of sculpture explains why these statues look like many snapshots capturing a fluid movement, or fixed frames of a movie whose preceding scenes and later denouement we can only guess. Why is it that the beautiful girl in A.V. with Knife and RPG-7 (2009) leans almost delicately – not on a myrtle trunk or on the trustworthy arm of a young Eros -- but on nothing less than a bazooka? Why does the Mitrailleuse ecstatically pump her beautiful elongated legs as she grips the lethal weapon she is clearly about to fire? What desire pushes the beauty in Figure Falling Backwards with Two Carbines (2010) to offer up a rifle in each hand almost as a gift? As she gazes ahead with the glassy look of an aggressive Joan of Arc, preparing to pounce with a pistol in her left hand and a sharp dagger hidden behind her back, is Isabelle Schiltz as Crawling Figure (2010) planning a merely erotic game or a terrible revenge? And most of all, what indecision is driving Kim de Weijer as Amputee with 3 Pistols (2010), seeing that, although she has three guns around her, she will never be able to pick any of them up with her stumps, not even to punish the person responsible for her amputated condition?

Perhaps it is precisely Kim's terrible mutilation which supplies an answer to the enigmas so ably staged by Puckey. If it is true that, as Deleuze said about Kant's moral philosophy, “he certainly has clean hands, it's a shame he doesn't have any hands” – here we could reverse it and say that here we are faced with a criminal with hands so clean that they've been cut off .That is to say that the lack, the existential void, an inexplicable subtraction are at the center of Puckey's poetic. To quote Blanchot (a key author for the artist) we are faced with the description of a strategic absence, of the “possibility of an impossibility.” And the same goes for all the other figures of Puckey's world: the extreme realism of the weapons leaves no doubt about their meaning, they are not symbols but true instruments of death; inscribed in their mechanism they already contain the destruction and the evil they will wreak. Through his sweet fully-armed girls, Puckey has succeeded in offering a credible description of the negative, of the self-destructive absence which occupies the petrified center of things.

FATAL BEAUTY - The sculptures of Thom
Puckey - Willem Elias

The relationship between reality and art, seeking an interesting form for reality, seems to me every artist’s main problem. Whether he wants to present a sensory impression of it (impressionism) or powerfully express reality (expressionism), whether he wants to expose its invisible secrets (surrealism) or to reduce it to a few basic shapes (abstraction), or to a single one as the most important characteristic, the one pushed right to the front (art is concept, matter, …), the problem to resolve always remains: what is the relation between art and reality; even when it is stated that there is no such connection (dadaism).

Most remarkable in this affair surely is the adventure of art as mimesis of reality: all varieties of realism. Despised as a reprehensible objective of past art (the academic), the one-on-one aspiration nonetheless remains ever recurring in modern and contemporary art. From realism (Gustave Courbet) to post-modernism (Ron Mueck, John Currin), over symbolism (Félicien Rops), Auguste Rodin, Neue Sachlichkeit (Otto Dix), Pop Art (Andy Warhol), Nouveau Réalisme (Daniel Spoerri), performance art (Gilbert & George) and hyperrealism (Chuck Close), all have provided an answer concerning what is realism in art; not to mention those who have given reality a societal ideological message (different forms of social realism). Marcel Duchamp solved the problem by positing that reality itself can be proclaimed art: the readymade. The challenge becomes even more enthralling since Sir Ernst Gombrich taught us that realism is an illusion.

To situate the work of Thom Puckey, it must be placed within or in relation to the outline above. Is he an academic realist or a conceptual realist? In other words, is he someone who conformingly confirms reality as did old art or someone who broadens the relationship between reality and its representation, a preoccupation of the (post)moderns. Even though such a question can’t escape its implied answer, we’ll keep it open for the moment.

The following statement by Thom Puckey compels me to tackle the ‘realism’ issue: “The basic formal setup of the work is as in the period that followed Neoclassicism: anti-baroque, with a strong feel for formal stability, ultimately ‘posed’ and composed, with nothing in what is depicted that could not take place one way or another in real life. From this perspective, I can accept the epithet ‘realism’ for my work, in the knowledge that it is a word with a limited reach.” This meaning given by the artist and especially the warning that ‘realism’ is a word with a verbal limitation obliges me to elaborate.

I want to come back on the work of Ernst Gombrich. In his book Art and Illusion (1946) he argued that we can never cleanly separate what we see from what we know. The artist never makes a ‘copy’ of reality, but instead provides a translation. An implicit interpretation is bound to each medium. A marble eye is not a human eye. Illusion and reality cannot be distinguished from each other. A ‘realistic’ sculptor too must make a choice from the quantity of information that reaches him from the outside world. As a consequence even the most convinced realist must work suggestively. In addition what is considered realism, is actually dependent on cultural agreements. The imitation of reality is always just a choice between many possible representations. What something of the world ‘is’, amounts to the sum of the many ways in which that something can be seen, described or depicted. Even the most realistic art ‘makes’ the world. This is the point of view of another pioneer on the topic: Nelson Goodman. The insight that realism is only interpretation opens the way for realism as renewal. Realism too, can be a new interpretation. This only became apparent through the hyperrealism of the seventies. Later the postmodernists also worked with realism as an analytic method to show how the realism-effect works. Without being a hyperrealist, Thom Puckey shares their interest in photographic reality.

What does the realism of Thom Puckey look like then? He seeks out ‘types’ suitable for him among the young women in his circle of friends. Sometimes they are former students who have become artists themselves. This makes them good conversation partners for the composition of the scenes. This interaction determines the end product to a great extent. The model is allowed to be an actress of sorts; she is not a passive being just standing there. Then Thom models her pose in clay, which is cast in plaster by means of a mould. In Italy the plaster-casts are carved in splendid marble and finished by himself: sanded and polished. Thom Puckey does not imagine his own ideal women. He has a sharp eye for natural products of the female sort. Nature is an artist, Spinoza would say. In that sense Thom exhibits an inverted Pygmalion attitude. In contrast to this mythical sculptor he does not create the ideal image that he constructed in his head, but realises true to nature what he senses nature has to offer. He is far removed from the academic, because it is exactly what Thom Puckey does not want. An experimental artist of the seventies can hardly turn back without loosing face. ‘How does modern art remain new?’ is after all the question of his generation that blossomed in the eighties and closed an era. This was done without erecting a fence, as a turn that had to save modernism from its crime, its murder, its fall from grace: having thrown out the baby with the bath water. Alongside the old requirements attached to the canon of the academic, modernism also rejected the splendid accomplishments of the centuries-long urge for beauty.

Thom Puckey hence returns to some of the forms of 19th century sculpture. He wants to explore how people have sought to realise beauty after the renaissance and of course after the classics. In his quest he encounters the period after neoclassicism. Sculptors such as Antonio Canova (1757–1822) and Lorenzo Bartolini (1777–1850) become his inspirational examples for expressing natural beauty, so pure that it was given the name ‘purismo’. Thom Puckey however does not want to repeat the high points of antiquity. Artists today do not try to match, they quote and so want to evoke an atmosphere to ascribe some truth-value to contemporary affairs also. That is the purpose citations serve. They confirm the artist’s own vision; but also vice versa. In a new context, they demonstrate the weakness of the old message, say of every message. Culture equals giving-form and never becomes nature: being-form. Bartolini’s style suits Thom Puckey. His affinity is not so much with the neo-classical and the purist period but primarily with the third phase in which Bartolini becomes naturalistic with an empathic sensitivity for the given of nature. Bartolini also used to depict the ethical and civil values of his time and class. The image group Charity (1824) is a beautiful example of this. For aficionados of deconstructivism it gets even better knowing that this humanitarian purist’s most important client was Napoleon of whom he chiselled a larger than life bust.

Thom Puckey’s research as well as that of others of his generation into the essence of classical beauty must be understood as curiosity about the other extreme than the next to nothing that some branches of the avant-garde have arrived at. Only a decade after his White Square On A White Background (1918) Kazimir Malevich went back to painting figures. This however has a socio-political explanation related to the economy of the third decade of the 20th century. Yet, what must a sculptor make after the Merda d’Artista of Piero Manzoni and after the transformation of a gallery into a horse stable by Jannis Kounellis, after the mosaics of Tony Cragg composed of the cheap colour richness of discarded plastic objects, after the kinky soft toys of Mike Kelley or Paul Mc- Carthy’s slushiness. After internet art, after the gilded Venus of the Rags by Michelangelo Pistoletto, after Thomas Hirschhorn’s kitsch stalls, and after…? Indeed, this leads back to beauty and the noble material marble. It is not a return to the order of things, not a reactionary attitude as apology for the old aesthetic values but a far reaching use of the academic accomplishments as medium and not as objective. Modernism had rejected the old and what that encompassed as possible media because it was too powerful as tradition. It only served to rebel against; with hindsight a great merit, possible textbook example of dialectics, not a war without an enemy. Bearing in mind Heraclitus: war is the father of all and king of all. The old art affirms the social hierarchy of power: thesis. Modern art undermines it through a destruction of form that also slices down social relations: antithesis. The post-moderns create art in which they liberate the old canon of its authoritarian connotation and once more add the possibility of carrying a societal message: synthesis. In philosophers’ heaven Hegel may be grateful to me, and I to him, for this appropriate use of his dialectic theory. With Thom Puckey the synthesis reappears as mimetic tradition (thesis), laughing stock of modernism (antithesis) with a societal positioning that the weakened, rigid modernism could no longer achieve. In the end — the Achilles heel of modernism — a white surface on a white canvas can only be painted once, only once can a urinal be exhibited as a fountain, only once can the faecal content of an artist be canned, numbered and sold at the price of gold. The tragedy of the new is that it becomes old. The hope of beauty is that it remains beautiful. Thom Puckey makes a contribution to ‘back-to-fine-arts’: breathtakingly beautiful tender femininity, provided with a weapon. Beauty remains semblance; it hides aggression. But the weapon is a symbol for so many meanings that all remains open: left or right, protest or repression, attack or defence, murder or suicide, love or self-destruction (Love & Self-Damage). What is more, the weapon is also a metaphor for art itself: a medium with a specific form that can strike the spectator. The artist can also shoot himself in the foot with his work. Besides art-historical museums, martial museums and museums of crime exist. Museum-mausoleum was the critique of the avant-garde on art institutions. Weaponry museums also show us how attack was once carried out. Art is war.  

In the story of Thom Puckey, as with every artist, one should not forget his past. The whole of his body of work is more than the sum of the pieces; a rule derived from gestalt psychology applicable to among others the professional artist. Only the amateur artist attempts each weekend to produce an entirely different sort of masterwork. The professional creates a line, his watermark that carries his name and needs no nametag, save to carry the indication without title. That is also how it is with Thom Puckey. Visiting his website is an impressive experience. One can see stills there of his performance-acts in which the same poses are struck as in the compositions of his current sculptures. This leads to looking at the scultpures as solidified performances. The shamanistic acts of Beuys are in the air, but there is also a kinship with the Wiener Aktionismus that had self-mutilation and taboo breaking as a common theme. Thom Puckey was in contact with these artists. This too, shines a light on the presence of weapons. Did Chris Burden not let himself be shot in the arm during his happening Shoot (1971)? Thom Puckey himself was part of an important performance duo together with Dirk Larsen under the name Reindeer Werk. In the flow of Fluxus, the instigators of the happening in the early sixties, they carried out acts precisely to make the passage between art and life as direct as possible. They stayed in the Amsterdam art-centre De Appel night and day for five days (October 31st – November 4th 1978). Everyone was welcome. Around fifteen beds were foreseen. Meeting each other, talking about life and nothing in particular, there was the art. The performance scenes frozen in marble are still an invitation to dialogue with the public. ‘Making art and life coincide’, all very well, but a visual artist is not fond of time-based art. In the end artistic acts are too ephemeral to make the performer happy. Admittedly there are photo’s as persisting documents but these also are too transient for the sculptor’s soul. Marble defies time. Still the photographic plays its role. In his relationship with reality, he has used photography as an intermediate step. In that sense he prefers to call his sculptures three dimensional images. Besides the reference to neoclassicism, this is a strong determining factor in the realisation of his marbles. A fine example of the visual relationship between photography and his sculptures is the image Falling Backwards with Two Carbines (2010). It refers to the Fallen soldier (1936) by war photographer Robert Capa. It gets even more fascinating artistically when one knows that this world-famous photo may not be a snapshot of what happened in the Spanish civil war, but an enacted scene. Thus a different artistic layering is added. Meanwhile it must have become obvious that Thom Puckey is not an academic realist but a conceptual one. Thinking about realism is his objective. Without wanting to be a herald he asks himself to what his image owes its power. Just like ‘What is the literary of literature’ once was the starting point of Jacques Derrida’s philosophic solicitude, so it remains the concern of every conceptual artist. The answer Thom Puckey provides to this, is finding a form that stimulates reflection. In this he joins Marcel Duchamp. The artist’s purpose is not to make the senses rejoice because that leads to retinal art that does not reach the brain. One of the exhibited works sets itself apart in the series of women’s figures. Everything I Say Is Not True (1985, m hka) has all the markings of a conceptual piece of work: mysterious, monumental but not expressive, not referring to an immediately recognisable reality, nostalgia to the past, enigmatic. Two concrete disks that can be interpreted as mirrors sit encapsulated in a wooden construction with many drawer-like boards. It generates an atmosphere as if belonging to the pseudo laboratory of a magician. Maybe it comes from the old illustration of the wonder psychiatrist Carl Gustav Jung who paid much attention to irrational practices such as found in alchemy and the kabala. Like art these are after all attempts to gain knowledge, next to science or as precursors thereof. Both systems also hold a philosophy of how one comes to better self-understanding. One can therefore see his Everything I Say… as a monument to self-knowledge and especially to its failure. Psychology is never far off, because the mirror refers to a theory of Jacques Lacan that is very important to Thom Puckey. Counter to the philosophy of consciousness that assumes that the task of a sensible human is to come to a complete self-consciousness, Lacan argues after Freud, that it is precisely the existence of the unconscious mind that makes this possible. For Lacan the mirror stage is the moment when the six month old child recognises itself in the mirror. From then on identification comes into being, understood as the change that the subject undergoes as it takes in the image. The self-image is greatly influenced by the idealised image of a person, usually that of the parents. It never becomes a pure image of itself, so that Thom Puckey rightly states: not everything I say is true, or with Lacan “La vérité est mi-dite”; truths are half-truths. So far this elaboration on the most conceptual piece of the series.

The figurative pieces also show an affinity with the thinking of the grandfather of conceptual art, Marcel Duchamp. The arsenal of weapons can be read as ready-mades eternalised in marble. This augments their symbolic value. His sculptures seem like monuments to ‘unknown murderesses’. Precisely the stark contrast between frail, beautiful, naked girls’ bodies and armoury that belongs in the hands of tough bodybuilt bears produces meaning. One can also consider the weapons as a metonymy. They stand for the men the fatal women like to play with. Indeed, besides the references to classical sculpture and photography, there is also a kinship with mass culture hidden in his work, such as the comic strip, gaming and other vibrating toys. His pedestals are often pillows or mattresses, intimate places where love-play can take place, alone or otherwise. Weapons have something phallic anyway, so that in perverse minds the thought of dildos is quickly evoked. Such a fine example of a pedestal-mattress is Kim de Weijer as Amputee with 3 Pistols (2011). The lady has to get by with two stumps. In terms of plasticity it’s right on the ball. A pretty child like this is hardly a joy to behold. One momentarily averts the gaze. Still it is not a commission for a monument to commemorate war-cripples. The theme of the piece can better be read as giving rise to feelings that go with indecision, frustration, impasse. Reiterating the erotic dimension in Thom Puckey’s body of work, it can also depict the inhibition attached to masturbation under the pressure of a Christian guilt-feeling. The three pistols lie there in complete futility; functionless because some moral systems thwart the enjoyment of life. A mattress can be the playground of love but it is also the location of sleepless nights and much suffering, the unsafe mooring as in the title of Barbara Kruger’s piece Your body is a battleground.

Even so, the weapons are not all that intimidating. I don’t feel scared by them. The portrayal of unapproachable women is more terrifying, the myth of Holofernes and Judith in mind. The weapons may have real armoury as models, they still incite a playful atmosphere. The girls seem like playful kids who have exchanged their Barbie dolls for boys’ toys. His young boy’s dreams are never far off with Thom Puckey. This somewhat frivolous option in the infinite range of interpretation offered by Umberto Eco’s open artwork-theory, is most likely offered as connotation because the players are striking poses. Due to this one does not expect an actual use of the weapons. Laconic, indifferent or in action, the poses are still pretence. In contrast to what happens in film, the sculptor does not want to carry away the spectator in tension. He shows fiction. But does Lacan not precisely argue that truth and fiction cannot be separated from each other?

This frivolous turn towards a playful connotation does not detract from the fact that the images of Thom Puckey have the vulnerability of human beings as their theme. He places himself in the range of humanists who ask questions about the human condition. His work also contains an existential dimension: he is not concerned with the supernatural, but with the human being here on earth, with his fears, especially of loves too brief and a death too long. In the end we are all naked and the world is a collection of dangers. Not least are we a danger to ourselves. The works suggest that the depicted women will sooner hurt themselves than others, even though one does not know what goes through their heads. This philosophical reflection in the work of Thom Puckey, which may be called essential, is expressed most effectively in his latest pieces. In Figure on Bed with Camera and Weapons (2013) a naked woman lies the wrong way round on a bed stretching her arms out so as to make a portrait of herself. A camera plays the role of a weapon. Language allows us to speak of ‘shooting’ photos. Even colloquially the kinship with a weapon is recognised. Once someone has a picture of you, to some extent he takes possession of you. But the person lying down is taking her own picture, so that the photo takes on the function of the mirror in the piece discussed earlier. The photographic image too is always a lie. That simply put is its paradox. The piece provides a beautiful synthesis of Thom Puckey’s oeuvre: the bed as a risky, intimate place, the young woman, vulnerably naked, as representative of humanity as youthfulness, the weapons as danger from the outside world and the photo camera as self-reflection doomed to failure; and all that, carved in brilliant marble as back-to-fine-art. Beauty has to continue becoming beauty.