Christopher Alles, a contemporary sculptor, is a working artist. He rarely does shows. Nonetheless, a number of his sculptures and drawings are being displayed at New York’s Sheen Center for Thought & Culture, where he was recently an artist-in-residence, through June 11 in an exhibition titled “A Peering.”
The assembled works include sculptures of Catholic figures such as St. Katharine Drexel and Dorothy Day, drawings and busts of an elderly gentleman named Byron Bray, and a trio of self-portraits. They evidence an awareness of anatomy and traditional techniques rarely displayed by contemporary artists. Aside from the artist’s self-portraits, the most noticeably “experimental” of his works, there is nothing overtly conceptual about these pieces. They depict human figures and communicate personalities relatively unscathed; they are pleasing to the eye.
Depictions of Adam and Eve after the fall, those that do not show them fleeing the garden, often show the man and woman comforting one another in an embrace; Alles’s sculpture The Fall (2016) refers to this convention but departs from it. The woman’s stooped form already seems to have become gross, weighed down to the earth, rather than rising from it in a classically dignified posture. She covers her face and body with her arms, almost as much in grief and seeking to comfort herself as out of any impulse of modesty. The man’s body is more muscular and ideal, but full of tension; as Eve moves towards him he does not give her the comfort she wants but twists away, looking at the ground, again as much out of an inner turmoil (perhaps he is angry with himself) as out of shame at their nakedness.
If Alles is out of sync with the contemporary art world, it isn’t based on an ideology or an association with some reactionary movement; his works express little interest in reviving classical realism or wallowing in concepts. Rather, the heterodox collection of pieces is the mark of an artist content to let his own interests be his guide. In truth, Alles doesn’t seem so much deliberately out of sync with the contemporary art world as he does in sync with something deeper, searching for a palpable form of transcendence.
When Alles depicts a saint, however—as opposed to life drawings and modeled sculptures—the person herself becomes the predominant subject, with the artist’s impressions receding to the role of accentuation. This makes sense, since commissioned religious art serves a purpose beyond the artist’s exploration of his personal aesthetic interests. But for Alles, this difference in approach is also based on what it means to be a saint. In his secular portraits, there is a certain tension between the figure and the geometry that is not fully resolved. In one of his drawings of his friend Byron Bray, Mr. Bray, Variation V (2017), the subject’s body is largely vague and, for lack of a better word, sketchy, while Mr. Bray’s more fully-rendered face and left hand jump out of the image; the hand in its detail seems almost out of proportion with the body.
But a saint by definition is resolved, completed, having fulfilled and gone beyond his or her potential. Depicting someone like St. Katharine Drexel invites a special respect for the person and for certain rules of iconography—and this is the process Alles says he enjoys most. His Katharine Drexel (2017) sits solemn and composed; in her lap she holds a book of Scripture, her finger pointing to a verse in a classic hagiographical gesture.
Alles is a working artist; much of his creative activity is focused on commissions, such as portraits and religious works for churches (some of which are on loan for the Sheen Center exhibit). He points out that we think of culture as going to a museum or a symphony, as acts detached from our day-to-day—but these things do not comprise culture. He hopes that in doing more commissions than shows, he contributes to the re-integration of art and daily life.
It only occurs to me as I write this that not a single one of Alles’s pieces has a placard under it explaining what the artist was trying to say. Like Alles’s art, that fact speaks for itself.