James Sullivan:
Matter and Meaning




April 8-June 11, 2000



Art Museum of South Texas, Corpus Christi

South Texas Institute for the Arts




Therefore the presence of the aesthetic object to the body is necessary. As immanent in the sensuous, meaning itself must traverse the body. Meaning can be read by feeling or elaborated by reflection only if it is first received and experienced by the body, that is, if the body is intelligent from the beginning.

Mikel Dufrenne1


James Sullivan's sculpture and drawing issues from where he, and we, always already are situated: the lived experience of embodied consciousness. One commonly does not reflect on one's embodied consciousness as such. To do so in sculpture is not merely a matter of taking the figure as a motif for sculpture: it is to employ, at a more profound level, the body as a model of sculptural space. So employing the body informs Sullivan's work with a quiet gathering of presence. These numinous figures are marked by a silent stillness of reserve, reticence, and dignity. Even when the figure is abstracted to a fragment, a felt sense of immensity independent of scale pervades the works.

The accumulation of straw cemented with plaster in Sullivan's sculpture constitutes a strongly worked, richly textural surface; the appeal of its palpable physicality is at once proximally tactile and distally visual. The seeming density of the mass is composed of a flickering of linear elements constellated into volume. There is a profound sense in which any volumetric form, however abstract, references the figure, insofar as volume entails a distinction of exteriority and interiority. More than the figure regarded as the abstract notion or as a conventional motif, Sullivan's works evoke the concrete lived experience of the body.

One's body is the always already given locus of unity of one's being. The body is the ground of intersubjectivity, that through which others are visible and that by which one is visible to others. One is always already in a world, among others and objects, at once in the biological ground of one's body and beyond one's self in a transcendence that is an opening to a presence to being. This site between biological ground and presence to being is the domain of the poiesis of cultural production and interpretation.

Sculpture entails a threefold articulation of space: the exterior spatial field that the sculpture occupies and orients, the articulate spatial form that is the sculpture itself, and the space of interiority which the sculpture models. Sculpture qua object embodies this mediation of interiority and exteriority. More strongly than for artworks in two-dimensional media, sculpture employs the distinction of exteriority from interiority to fund the artwork as quasi-subject: as in an encounter with other subjects, one has in the encounter with artworks an expectation of meaning.

Artworks are in Hannah Arendt's felicitous term "thought-things," bringing the absolute otherness of matter to a level of perceptual intelligibility, equiprimordially with the transformation of matter into sense. The transformation of materials in Sullivan's works is part of their power and their poignancy, inseparable from and enacting the content of the works. Straw and plaster are humble, ordinary, almost base, materials. In Sullivan's taking up these simple materials as the materials of a medium in the facture of sculpture, straw and plaster are transmuted into ocherous gold and ivory, even as they remain exactly straw and plaster. There is an elegant economy of means in this parsimony of materials. The transfiguration of these materials into sculpture entails a slow, direct modeling with these materials into evocative figures, others of ourselves. Straw and plaster seem stirred by a wind into an apparently ephemeral sensible form; another breath given or withdrawn might suffice to render them again as mere stuff lying about, mere plaster dust and leaves of grass. To evoke the body with brittle plaster and fragile straw is to evoke a body stripped of skin to lay bare the muscles and sinews. It is to evoke the fragility, the vulnerability, we know is ourselves.

The sense of the body in Sullivan's works depends less on the rendering of details than on the inherent symmetry and relationships of mass within the body. Indeed, Sullivan's materials conduce to a treatment of form that is simplified, elemental, essential. The symmetry of the body is never total; always nuances of asymmetry are present. The subtle asymmetry of the body is connected with a sense of vital presence in sculpture, not merely because our bodies are asymmetrical, but in the full realization of sculptural form: as no two positions give the same view, one is induced to move between positions in experiencing the work. Likewise, even minimal gesture inflects one's kinesthetic response to sculpture, eliciting one's feeling-into the perceived form. One empathetically senses within one's own body the mass of a torso, the heft of a head, the force exerted by the perceived body against gravity. The weight of Reclining Figure in repose is palpable; the slight spreading of the arms in Lift suffices to elicit the feeling of controlled movement. The seeming weightlessness of a figure cantilevered from the wall above eye level is an astonishment.

The works have a monumentality independent of actual scale, evident in the smaller works such as Figur/Umgekehrte. Nevertheless, physical size is important: one's relationship to the work is in part a matter of the relative size of one's own body to that of the work. Berlin Head, Black Head and Black Torso dwarf one, rendering a portion of the figure as large or larger than one's body. Experience of the very large is a precondition of awe and the sublime.

In addition to its practical utility in supporting the armature structurally and visually anchoring the piece, Sullivan uses the base to mark the spatial location of the work and render that location bivalent: the base carries the plaster and straw detritus accumulated during the work's facture from the studio into the exhibition space as material, even as it supports the plaster and straw as the material forming the finished work. Allowing the plaster and straw to remain on the base allows the material as material, a trace of the work's facture, to be copresent and contemporaneous with the work in completion. If the notions of being and presence are often employed in negation, under erasure, within the discourses of postmodernism, employing them here in a valorizing sense may seem reactionary, if not antiquarian. This is not the case: Sullivan's work repositions the vocabulary of being and presence beyond the endgame use of these terms. Sullivan's works engage the question of the possibility of figural sculpture, beyond the high modernist repudiation of the figure, and in a way that obviates of the cliché of postmodern irony. That these works avoid the cynicism of the moment suggests that not only sculpture employing figural reference remains possible, but that works eliciting a contemplative response to their gravitas are yet possible. That is not a small matter: the gathering that is the work of art is the gathering of a community of intersubjective interpretation that is the opening of a world. As the foundation of the horizon of a world, the work of art is the foundation of historicity as such. To speak of the work in these terms is to speak of its position in a social formation, in which engagement of the work is a model of the intersubjective engagement of the other, and which reciprocally is modeled on our quotidian relationships with others. In the engagement Sullivan's sculpture enables, meaning subsists not only in one's reading of the work, but in the work's reading of one's self, as Rilke wrote of an archaic torso of Apollo:

. . . here there is no place that does not see you. You must change your life.


David Newman April 2000



1 Mikel Dufrenne, The Phenomenology of Aesthetic Experience, trans. Edward S. Casey et al. (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1973), p. 341.