By Camille Okhio
Photo by Berenice Abbott, 1949.
Of course I could not say enough positive things about a female artist, who in her old age focused mostly on sculpting gargantuan blatantly phallic works. Louise Bourgeois’ sculptural triumphs are many. From the beginning of her artistic training in the twenties Bourgeois remained miraculously unforgiving and understanding in her work. I could attempt to list all of the reasons she has finished the game as one of the most revered artists of the Western female – sculptor tradition, if such a niche can qualify as realistic. But listing her many skills and insights would be far too exhaustive to provide good reading, so I shall just concentrate on Bourgeois work as the provider of many introspective starting points in the viewers experience.
A girl, 1968.
I can hardly think of words I agree with more strongly than “Art is reality,” which Bourgeois wrote in her 1962 essay “Freud’s Toys”. Just as a person in disguise cannot avoid their appearance being somewhat autobiographical, art cannot avoid telling the truth. Not an objective truth of course, because we can never be sure such a thing even exists, but a subjective truth certainly. In that subjective truth, the viewer is given a catalogue of intentions, anxiety, theoretical sources, aesthetic sources, emotions and experiences. Those of the artist and occasionally, by way of interpretation, those of the viewer. Bourgeois is completely aware of this and does not try to tell a lie.
Janus Fleuri, 1968 Louise Bourgeois.
That is why many of new sculptures make one so uncomfortable. Shes airing our dirty laundry. Her work is provoking. “Destruction of the Father” (1974) Bourgeois presents a violent narrative in a completely nonviolent frame. This work is part sculpture and part installation. The space her works are in become part of her work. This particular work has been discussed as a representation of “the death of the patriarch” representing the father torn apart and scattered ceremoniously. I interpret this as an indication of the artists frustration with an equal distribution of power between the sexes. Perhaps explicitly within the art world, where the white male has to this day reigned supreme/ However, this sculpture indicates frustration without its common partners: anger and despair.
Destruction of the Father
There is a calm in Bourgeois’ work which shows at times her acceptance, and at times her strength. Her integrity stopped her from any type of accusatory undertones in her work. Her sculptures are purely factual (and therefore believable). Regardless of this calm, her works can still insight a feeling of aggression when her works are displayed in a certain social climate.
Bourgeois work is often representational of the human body in a way that is exactly the opposite of Brancusi’s sculpture. Where Brancusi is minimal (though nothing near minimalist) and pre-developmental, Bourgeois is worn and aggressive. There is no semblance of innocence in her work. Her sculptures are conscious. They demand something from the viewer: brute honesty. In Sleep II (1967) Bourgeois is straightforward in both image and title. We know what we are looking at though aggressive, Bourgeois’ work does not accost the viewer, it summons them. One is called upon to look an honest statement in the face. Its quite uncomfortable. Very rarely are we really forced to contemplate what we would rather not.
Louise Bourgeois working on Sleep II, 1967.
For me, Bourgeois’ work can be so serious that it is intimidating. Her sculpture wrenches a smile out of me immediately, but then that smile fades as I consider the grave quality of many of the statements I fancy are at the center of her work. Statements concerning the divide between the sexes, indicating a dissatisfaction with social divides in general. But perhaps biological divides are the most frustrating. This frustration makes complete sense, as we know Bourgeois’ came into her own artistically in America, in a time when the art world was ruled by the machismo of a few main male forces: Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Barnett Newman and Carl Andre.
“Maman” image by Nobuyuki Taguchi.
Bourgeois brings out much in me that no other artist does. My first favorite sculpture were Michelangelo’s slaves, but seeing my first Bourgeois made me rethink my choice, and I have not been able to rest on a decision yet. That may be a gift or a curse, I am not sure. Seeing her work makes me question everything. It has a didactic quality that points out falsities without even a hint of condescension. I am completely unfamiliar with such a quality in anything use I’ve ever seen. It is the same quality which marks a person as indispensably useful.
Bourgeois’ worth is in her readiness to present an uncomfortable truth. I am often preoccupied with the beauty contemporary art often reveals, but I am less frequently moved by something that has no concern with beauty. In reality beauty has no truth. No relevance. Truth is confused with so much else. But not in the work of Louise Bourgeois. Her sculpture is an unshakeable imitation to contemplate real life. An opportunity to witness reality without necessarily experiencing it is truly rare. Bourgeois has somehow managed to present her audience with works which do just this, with an ease and precision that I am convinced is singular to Bourgeois alone.
“I am not what I am, I am what I do with my hands.” (Louise Bourgeois)
Camille Okhio is a contributing writer for by such and such.