The Uncanny Valley

Is something lost when sculptures get too close to reality?

met breuer like life
An installation view of John De Andrea’s Self-portrait with Sculpture

I can’t believe I almost missed this show. The Met Breuer’s Like Life: Sculpture, Color, and the Body (1300–Now) is a fascinating exhibit that raises so many questions on the very nature of art that one leaves the galleries somewhat disturbed, stimulated, and certainly thoughtful. The portrayal of the human body is fraught with an impossible tangle of issues imbued within our culture: politics, gender, sex, aesthetics, beauty, race, just to name a few. The exhibit can engage and provoke the viewer along multiple lines of thought to an extent far greater than any other exhibit I’ve seen. One viewer might react to a question posed by the curators: “Just how perfectly should figurative sculpture resemble the human body?” Another will react to issues of the dominance and the rebellion against the “male gaze,” or even the preference for and significance of the dominant white color of most classically-inspired sculpture. Why did this preference for monochrome even exist despite that fact that most of the classical sculptures of antiquity were colored? There is an eroticism that runs through many of the pieces in the exhibit, and well as a recurring momento mori theme in portrayals of aged and damaged bodies. Religious idolatry and the Catholic Church’s shifting doctrines on the portrayal of Christ and the saints recur throughout the exhibit as well. These themes are conceptual, though a practicing artist may see the exhibit through the lens of technique, craft, and aesthetics. Without a doubt, it’s a rich, thought provoking, and entertaining show.

met breuer like life
An installation view of Janine Antoni’s Saddle (foreground)

The aspect of Like Life that most intrigues me runs along the lines of the curators’ question: Is something lost when sculptures get too close to reality? Does the art suffer as the techniques used to create the piece become more mechanical and less connected to the direct touch of the artist’s hand? Many of the pieces in the show are cast from live models. Is that sculpture? George Segal and John De Andrea are well known for doing this. Segal’s work is usually not painted, nor neatly illusionistic, though his portrait of Meyer Shapiro is painted, albeit not naturalistically. John De Andrea brings his work right into the uncanny valley where images are so real, though clearly unreal, that they are disturbing. His Self-portrait with Sculpture, a take on the tale of Pygmalion and Galatea, is a case in point. Within the piece De Andrea’s simulacrum paints the flesh color onto the female sculpture, giving it the illusion of real flesh. This is a multi-layered portrayal of the act of representation, but paradoxically I don’t feel the presence of the real artist at all. The cast pieces in the exhibit, especially those in wax, silicone, and polyester resins with human hair and real clothing are somewhat alarming, perhaps none more than Paul McCarthy’s Paul Dreaming, Vertical, Horizontal. It is really difficult to believe from across the room or even hovering directly over the reclining figure that Paul will not open his eyes and cover up his embarrassing nakedness. The “nakedness” is created by the presence of a real shirt covering only his upper body. Had he been completely unclothed, he might have appeared as a “nude,” and less exposed. As it is, the viewer feels that they are violating the subject’s privacy, seeing something they shouldn’t. Unlike most art, it almost feels like we are not supposed to look. The technique used results in a painted cast so completely lifelike that it makes even Hanson’s work look somewhat artificial. But is it art? Is there a boundary that an artist should not cross on the way to capturing reality? Passing that boundary, does the artist fall into the uncanny valley of losing the inherent artifice of representation, to the degree where it is so perfectly convincing that it lacks the expressive interpretations that define art?

met breuer like life
Donatello, Bust of Niccolò da Uzzano, 1430s, polychromed terracotta. Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Florence

Painting has a built-in boundary in being two-dimensional and still. Nevertheless, I prefer a painting to look painted, after a certain point of photorealistic rendering, the image loses the human touch, becoming mechanical. If I want a photo-real image, I can get a camera to do it for me. In a sense, casting materials and technology have reached the level of verisimilitude of the camera, leaving me similarly dissatisfied. I by no means intend to imply that photography is not an art; it certainly is, though a different one from painting. Perhaps, casting is also an art, but it isn’t sculpture. If so, the wax museum is full of masterpieces. As in the realm of the 2-D moving image, we’ve reached a stage in digital representation that can create totally convincing realities born of an artist’s imagination. It’s certainly some kind of art, but I miss the evidence of the human hand in all of it.

I still found the most compelling pieces in the exhibit to be those that don’t have that degree of reality produced by casting from real bodies. I found that I enjoyed very naturalistic depictions of the figure more when they are smaller in scale, colored or not. After Rodin was accused of casting The Age of Bronze, he eschewed life size sculpture with that degree of naturalism. The key is a step back from reality, whether in scale or medium that makes the viewer conscious that they are indeed looking at a representation created by the human hand. I find myself embracing the handcrafted and turned off by the casted. I don’t think it is a matter of “cheating.” The images simply lose something if the visual concepts don’t flow through the hand of the artist. They all certainly pass through the mind of the artist, and that is paramount, but I feel the hand-crafted part adds something ineffable. The parallel in realistic painting may be the question of just how much photography is too much to use. Is photo reference OK? is projecting and tracing going too far? So many digital painters today simply paint over the original photograph. Where has the drawing gone, the personal line and shapes that define a style?

met breuer like life
Charles-Henri-Joseph Cordier, Pedestal attributed to designs by Charles-François Rossigneux, 1861, Algerian onyx-marble, bronze and gilt bronze, and enamel; white marble socle, Overall on socle (confirmed): H. 37 3/4 x W. 23 1/4 x D. 12 1/4 in. European Sculpture and Decorative Arts Fund, 2006, the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The more traditional approaches typified by the Donatello in the exhibit are subtly imperfect, just like us. In a true paradox, the closer we get to perfect representation, the less natural the work appears to be. Art has a spectrum of styles, from the stylized to the real, and a range where the balance of verisimilitude and the artist’s vision live in harmony, beyond which there is a visual discord. If we perceive a work of art as the actual, we quickly sense the lack of life, and we sense death. That’s the disturbing part of the ultra-realistic portrayals. If it can make its way out of the uncanny valley and we mistake it for the real, the living, will we really look at it as visual expression? Will it be art? Is the conscious illusion an integral part of art? Art should reflect a point of view, a way of seeing things though the lens of an individual—the artist. Does perfection crowd out the viewer’s consciousness of the artist? We need to know that we are viewing art to enjoy the art.

The idea of crossing that boundary leads us to the talking sculpture/android in the show titled To the Son of Man Who Ate the Scroll by Goshka Macuga. It moves, gestures, and speaks. Traveling along that path to greater and greater “reality,” do we end up with artificially intelligent, fully believable robots in control of programmer artists? Perhaps, this is a case of our concepts about art continuing to broaden and evolve. Do you embrace any boundaries? Some will shout “no,” but I find the constraints of our traditional media to be a source of beauty. The innovations and blurring of boundaries between disciplines may be what will define our modern art, but there is a valid aesthetic that embraces a limited palette.

For example, John Ahearn’s Bernice may be cast plaster, but it is saved for me by its color not being totally believable and a certain roughness in the cast. I can enjoy the language of the sculpture in a way that I don’t in a Duane Hanson. It is a “less is more” point of view that travels the other way down the spectrum of representation away from the naturalistic. The exhibit has good examples of this as well, from the cast aluminum Grass Munchers by Urs Fischer, or Saddle, the implied body captured with cast leather by Janine Antoni. I also found the giant stylized figure clad in leather and zippers by Nancy Grossman fun and compelling.

met breuer like life
An installation view of Duane Hanson’s Housewife

The monochrome of the first pieces in the show didn’t bother me. It may be more of a nineteenth-century European aesthetic, but what’s so wrong with that? It need not be the dominant taste as we move forward, but do we need to eliminate it altogether? If Carpeaux painted his Ugolino and his Sons, it would take away from its carved in stone eloquence. My favorite piece with color in the exhibit is La Capresse des Colonies by Charles-Henri-Joseph Cordier made with Algerian onyx-marble, bronze and gilt bronze, and enamel. The colors and textures are rich and varied, and the balance between the decorative and the naturalistic portrait is beautiful.

A skeptical reader may object, “Does it have to look like art for it to be art?” Hmm, it’s that boundaries thing again, isn’t it? I think we have to recognize that the object has been created, and we can judge it from there. If we are fooled into not realizing the art underlying the object, will we process it as an aesthetic communication or just pass it by as we do with most of our world? So, if it gets too real, we can lose it as art altogether. The uncanny valley does have art within it. Duane Hanson’s Housewife works because our initial reaction is voyeuristic, realizing it is a life cast dressed in real cloths only after a pause. We’ve been manipulated into realizing there is a point of view on the mundane to be processed and appreciated. It is climbing out of the other side of that uncanny valley, when we lose the artist in the totally convincing real object, that we have left the realm of art.

Go to the Met Breuer before July 22. Think, rage, scoff, and thoroughly enjoy.

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