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1999 05 10 Sculpture Stella Mare Catherine Ross starfish close up
1999 05 13 Sculpture Stella Mare Catherine Ross starfish 05
1999 05 13 Sculpture Stella Mare Catherine Ross full view large
1999 05 28 Sculpture Stella Mare Catherine Ross ants eye view
1999 05 10 Sculpture Stella Mare Catherine Ross side view

Catherine Ross - Stella Mere
April 13 1999

1999 05 10 Sculpture Stella Mare Catherine Ross starfish close up

The Sculpture of Catherine Ross
by Robin Peck

Catherine Ross is an animalier. She carves stone and casts metal and constructs wooden sculptures of snakes and birds, horses and starfish. Given the contemporary extinction of so many animal species, it is significant that Ross replicates the fourth and fifth days of Genesis and that she does so with sculpture that is so critical of its historical sources. Her sculptures of birds are a critique of Brancusi: Ross' Bird and Column, 1994, Bird and Cliff, 1994, Bird and Bridge, 1993-1994, are all studies of the relationship between sculpture and base. The plaster and sand forms of The White Bird, 1995, directly cast from a stone carving, are a critique of the modernist Truth to Materials dictum. Birds of Prey, 1990, three large birds, over human life-size, constructed from laminated wood sheathed with lead, are scaled-up replicas of bronze Ashanti gold weights recalling Modernism's early (and later recanted by Brancusi) fascination with African sculpture. Her snakes recall the work of the early 20th century American direct-stone carver John Flanagan (C.R., Language, 1993, a carved sandstone apple from which flee seven bronze snakes). Her Trojanate wooden equestrian sculptures rock (Rocking Horse/Untitled III, 1988) and her aluminum starfish float (Stella Mere, 1999).

The French Romantic sculptor Antoine-Louis Barye represented wild animals in combat (Jaguar devouring a Hare, Bronze, 1850). He undertook a scientific study of animals at the Paris Zoo that coincided with a growing interest in natural history among scientists, writers and artists and also, eventually, among the general public. Barye originally exhibited animal sculpture at the Salons of the 1830s but his work was marginalized in relationship to statuary proper. He inspired a school of French animal sculptors known as Les Animaliers, the best known of whom was Pierre-Jules Mene. Unlike Barye, Mene specialized in representations of domestic animals. Because of public demand for his modestly scaled works, Mene was able to own and operate his own small foundry. (Ross' work is likewise cast in her own studio foundry.) Les Animaliers influenced a later generation of American sculptors (Barye himself is represented in more American museums than any other single sculptor) and formed the basis for a tradition of American wildlife sculpture that continues today.

The influence of Barye and Les Animaliers on early modernism is not so commonly acknowledged. In the early 20th century the sculpture of animals was significant to the success of the modernist agenda because abstraction was more readily accepted in the representation of animals. (As early as the Old Kingdom of Egypt, the sculpture of animals was allowed a degree of freedom, a "realism", denied to representations of the human form.) Early modernist sculptors such as Henri Gaudier-Brzeska (Birds Erect, 1914), Raymond Duchamp-Villon (Horse, 1914) and Constantin Brancusi (Bird, 1915) embraced the status of the animalier along with the homilies of bohemia and primitivism. Brancusi's reductive sculptures of fish, seals, penguins and tortoises all have their sources in his own photography (produced under the direction of Man Ray) at the Paris Zoo, in the footsteps of Barye.

Animals move, are "animate." Sculpture is motionless. (The restricted movements of Kinetic art are a form of stasis.) As with architecture, the actual movement of sculpture is the slow movement of ruin. The early modernist doctrine of Truth to Materials evokes the ruin. (The sculptural body in ruin is the narrative of sculpture during the entire 20th century. Recall Carl Andre's disintegrative minimal history of 20th century sculpture: Sculpture as Form...Sculpture as Structure...Sculpture as Place.) Ross' sculptures are not Promethean Birds in Space, but birds grounded, perched resting on the pedestal, or in some other form of stasis. The stasis of the other in sculpture transfers animation to the spectator, compelling us to move. Ross' sculptures are as still as a sleeping ruin, and we walk around them quietly and watchfully.

The stillness of this sculpture recalls the two ways in which traditional hunter-gathering cultures could still the moving animal. The first way was to kill it. The second way was to imprison and domesticate it. During the Neolithic revolution when men were busy converting the chase into warfare and the tools of the hunt into weapons, women were converting the gathering of seeds into the planting of crops, and domesticating the first livestock. The domestication of animals (originating in foundlings, a byproduct of the hunt) was grounded in the touch, in the instincts associated with the nurturing of children. (The contemporary anachronism of the "pet" animal is a consequence of this activity.) Either way, the animate was objectified, reduced to either mineral (dead) or vegetal (domesticated) form. With domestication, food and clothing, carvable horn and bone, were still provided but without the hunter's search, without the following of animal "sign" (tracks, and other indications of animal presence) and without the linear historical narrative that developed from the reading of those signs.

Recall from several years ago the quasi-animistic consumer fad of Pet Rocks: small plain stones attractively gift-boxed. To touch a stone over a length of time is to abrade that stone (Adrian Stokes, The Stones of Rimini). In a gendered history of labour the constant touch is most characteristic of Women's Work, the construction techniques of traditionally female crafts, weaving and the like, repetitive skills akin to gathering. Carving is similarly repetitive work, like that once done by women. But over this last century it has been often carried out as an aspect of a reductivist ideology, as if it was the sublimation of a tool-making process, the sharpening of an edge on a cutting tool, traditional Men's Work. (Again consider Brancusi's extreme surfaces.)

Ross' sculptures are intimately scaled to the domestic interior or to the small garden. Their textures attract the touch, not in the way that an extreme surface by Brancusi or Donald Judd dares one to touch (or to be cut), but in the way of a surprisingly familiar furniture surface. Ross' surfaces all derive from the carving of stone, yet her forms are less reductive and more constructive of images. Many of her sculptures have the subtle marks of carving remaining on even the smoothest surfaces, marks of the tool used now as subtle forms, as the feathers of birds. Others display broken stony surfaces, evidence of the slow movement of ruin (Break, 1993, a marble bird at rest with its head tucked rearward over the body, but with part of the head broken away).

Women's sculpture is now re-explorative of all sorts of nearly abandoned technical and formal conventions, including stone carving, metal casting and the use of the pedestal. (Ross has actively explored all three.) However, women's sculpture is technologically and formally anachronistic only within the context of the "nothing is new" homily that terminally afflicts the conventional linear history of (men's) sculpture. Ross understands that there is still much work to be done, much sculpture to be made as a woman.

Ross' sculpture is informed by her broad knowledge of the history of world sculpture, by an acute sense of her place as a woman sculptor in provincial Canada, and by the possession of an abundance of technical knowledge. As a sculpture technician at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta, Ross teaches an enviable variety of skills that range from mould making to stone carving, woodworking and metalworking. Women make sculpture now and if their numbers in college sculpture classes are an indication, they will soon dominate the practice. They are relatively easier to teach than men precisely because they do not suffer so much from the conceit of familiarity with the tools of sculpture production. Women come to sculpture relatively free from the prejudices that have recently informed it and now pursue the material in art with a vengeance wrought by an historically denied access. Familiar paths are inevitably followed but not necessarily in old footsteps, and not necessarily following the same set of signs.


"Quod est Inferius est sicut quod est Superius, et quod est Superius est sicut quod est Inferius." Tabula Smaragdina

Consider the sculpture of the nomadic Scytho-Siberian "Animal Style" and relate Ross' Vancouver Stella Mere sculpture to it within a unique Canadian context. Traditional nomadic sculpture was relatively small, portable, repetitive, ornamental, related to jewelry and coinage, and made from carved wood and cast metal not only originally by the nomads themselves but later increasingly by an artistic underclass. (This underclass over time became composed nearly exclusively of women and their traditional domestic crafts such as carpets and other weavings came to dominate nomadic art production to this day.) Most middling successful Canadian sculptors are sedentary (peripatetic neither by inclination nor necessity) yet their exhibitions tend to be installations of temporary objects. Curators cite the poverty of their art institutions contrasted to the great size of the country in order to justify their prejudice against the transportation and exhibition of permanent self-contained sculpture on even a modest scale. But this is a class prejudice and the psychological needs (security found in signs of transience) of an increasingly peripatetic overclass of fabulators, the curators and critics, gallery directors and magazine editors (that is, nearly everyone involved, save the fabricating sculptors themselves) determines to a great degree the somewhat ephemeral physical characteristic of Canadian sculpture. ("Works of Art remain afloat upon a sea of words." Robert Morris. Some Splashes in the Ebb Tide, 1973.)

The Stella Mere sculpture is composed of hundreds of relatively small, hand-size, portable units, lightweight aluminum (and some few heavier bronze) castings taken from a mould of a single found starfish (asteroidea). Aluminum is too light for its size in the same way that lead is too heavy, and Ross' starfish almost float, metal lily pads rising cloudlike upon the air.

The sculpture is not laid out directly on the floor. (By now a formal convention, placement on the two-dimensional grid reduces the sculpture of artists like Allan McCollum to the status of a graphic sign.) Instead it is erected in the form of a wave, layered like a reef of fallen stars, an undulating Milky Way of a landscape flowing uphill like something from C. S. Lewis' Perelandra. The support for the castings is thin steel rods of various lengths, three to each five-lobed starfish. As its height increases from the floor and the foot to that of the head, the sculpture provides a measure for the vertical body of the spectator in motion, surrogate statuary of a kind. The effect of the tripod support is less that of a functional base than an image of appendages, legs appropriate to H.G. Wells' triangulate Martians or to a bizarre creature from the Cambrian Burgess shale.

Consider the fossils of prehistoric animals so often brought to light in Alberta, most often preserved as casts and moulds. Understand this starfish as the product of a fossil mould, a negative form in the casting process, an empty mark like a footprint in the impressionable black foundry sand. This is a sign that bears an unmistakable resemblance to the landscape below the horizon, the coulees of the Oldman River that flows past the backdoor of Ross' teaching studio. Blackfoot (Siksika) myth tells of the Old Man, Napia, who paused to rest during his creation of the world. He slept for so long that when he arose the impression of his reclining body remained as the form of the river valley.

Each pentagonal starfish body is also an amputated five-fingered hand, an implied touch upon the sculpture, a hand impression on a modeled plastic surface. The oldest representations of stars, like those from the Egyptian Old Kingdom (the Pyramid Texts of Unas) have five arms. In the El-Amarna period of the New Kingdom, falling rays of sunlight are depicted as arms ending in five fingered hands, progenitors of our own geometric symmetries, their prototypes carried within the dalliances of light. Alberta, like Egypt, has close bright crystalline stars above, sunlit fossil geometry below.

The sky is falling, and now the floor as well. Stella Mere is sculpture "hung" from the floor, rejoicing its status as a casting, as a once topological inversion of form, a thing made inside out and upside down. It contains, inverted, the memory of its gravity. Consider again Ross' stone carvings, with their broken edges and tool marks, so like birds with clipped wings, sculpture grounded by the 20th century insistence on overt materiality (a materialism that informed both capitalist consumerism and Marxist communism). It seems that sculpture sank to this, fell materially from the stars.

There is a long and curious and somewhat occult history to the veneration of fallen objects. Consider the metals that fell from heaven…the Ben stones of Ancient Egypt (magnetic iron meteorites, precursors to pyramids and obelisks) or the similar cornerstone of the Ka'aba at Mecca, the vajra (adamantine thunderbolt) of Tantric Buddhism and the Mjollnir (Thor's Hammer) of Asatru. If sculpture is burdened by an impossible longing for the quasi-mythical objects of antiquarianism rather than being informed by history proper and if it has had trouble establishing itself over this last century as being anything much more than a pastiche of prehistory, a neo-Neolithic of sorts, then now at the end of the millenium the weight of these perhaps false but certainly grave memories seems appropriate, now that we are most inclined to look far back. The sadness of sculpture is in its material, the gravity of its fallen stars.

"On coming out of Paradise we fell into time, and our ongoing flight is merely our Fall…"
Jean Phaure, Le Cycle de l'humanite' adamique

It is true that sculpture is a sedentary art and does not travel well, yet Ross' birds do fly, her starfish float and her snakes slither away along pathways through time. I remember my young mother, red-haired, emerging from too blue waves, walking across the tidal flats toward me with something in her hand. Smiling, she is holding up a starfish. Then, when close enough to touch me, her green eyes blur out of focus. She is distant again and the focus returns, but with it a cascade of white dots as the film ends. My memory is the memory of an 8mm film taken by my father. (I also remember my father's sculpture of a starfish. It was hand-size with five arms, three-dimensionally geometric, soldered from triangles of tin sheet, a sharp souvenir from a course he took at a trade school.) Ross' sculpture allows us to feel our way back along impossibly tangled paths of memory, back up to the Garden, if only to allow us to retrace the steps of our Fall through a different set of signs.

Robin Peck, April 1999