The weighty dilemma of the artist who must be ”human” in addition to creating. To slay the dragon of abstraction in pursuit of a cause. A mythological figure destined to eternal recurrence. Imagine alienation and despondency as a default setting, and central theme of personal identity.
Segal’s acute awareness of the “underlying” reality of the body, threatening to break through the boundary of clothing that separates secretive private from every day public existence, confirms his awareness of human complexity. One senses the animal body beneath the social façade of his figures, an ironical reminder of Aristotle’s idea that human beings are social animals. Segal invariably evokes the unknown private person inhabiting a body, an unknown concealed in a symbolic form, while the visible art describes known public/social reality, which is more intuitively grasped.
George Segal (1924-2000 ) known as a modern humanist artist, is best known for life sized figurative sculptures made of white plaster. Using a technique typically associated with casts and the medical field, George Segal developed a facile method to make sculptures that could capture perspectives on the human spirit. Rising to prominence alongside the painting of Roy Lichtenstein, James Rosenquist, and Andy Warhol, Segal was often associated with the Pop art movement of the 1960’s.However these pop artists interests lay less in human interaction than in the magic of everday objects, in an almost Socratic observation of the mundane.
”Segal’s figures are Gordian knots: they exist at a social remove even as they are familiar neighbors. The tension that binds the social and personal poles of their existence makes them uncanny and mythical. The more conscious we become of them, the more they seem to be fantasies or hallucinations — dream figures materialized. The oddly surreal character of Segal’s realism — for all its Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity) qualities, it has a certain affinity to magic realism — is generally ignored, but without it his figures would lose their allegorical import.”( Donald Kuspit )
Segal’s sculptures were direct and unsubtle leftist elitist critiques on the way we live and interact with others that had a populist appeal.Segal’s subjects appear lost in thought and isolated, even in the midst of others. In spite of their shared humanity and presumed desire for meaningful connection, they convey the alienation of city life in sculptural form in the way John Sloan and Robert Henri had previously done in painting. Segal’s vision was based on an assumption that mass technological society deprives people of their hum
y by implying that their existence is abstract. They become data rather than destinies. Aesthetically, it meant a renewal of realism and an assault on abstraction, which served as the scapegoat. His art was a balancing act of the purely artistic and the socially objective; an attempt at affirming mythological existential truth and contemporary social history.
”Never before has so much been required of the human being. By chance, in the course of history some men have had to perform crushing labors or expose themselves to mortal peril. But those men were slaves or warriors. Never before has the human race as a whole had to exert such efforts in its daily labors as it does today as a result of its absorption into the monstrous technical mechanism–an undifferentiated but complex mechanism which makes it impossible to turn a wheel without the sustained, persevering, and intensive labor of millions of workers, whether in white collar or in blue. The tempo of man’s work is not the traditional, ancestral tempo; nor is its aim the handiwork which man produced with pride, the handiwork in which he contemplated and recognized himself. ( Jacques Ellul, The Technological Society )
The artistic influence of ”situationism” as articulated by jacques Ellul and Guy Debord is either a despondent call for collective suicide or/and lucid critique of culture and society from the far reaches of leftist doctrine. Its the ardent association with this position resulting in cliche representations that are associated with causes, movements and ”phenomena” rather than the quality of the art.the same pattern of shallowness that had saturated abstract art.
Artistically, the anti-technology stance is a form of absurd romanticism that for Segal, succeeds because of the unusual juxtapositions and contexts which create a narrative that surpasses its political limitations and liabilities through the ”consciousness of the eternal in the present”
A recurring theme in Segal’s narrative is the characters in transition, temporal,and in the act of moving through an allegorical crossroads. The artist captures them in an ambiguous psychological terrain where the figures seem blind to one another and autonomous to their surroundings; disconnected from themselves, others, and oblivious to nature. Segal had a particular ability to elevate mundane day-to-day activities into a lyrical or elegiac display, depicting his subjects with their guard down and in a naturalistic stance, a hyper realism that is somewhat unsettling due to an underlying fascination with the obscure and seedy.
”Every man is in this fix, not merely the proletariat, and nothing can be done about it. What was once abnormal has become the usual standard condition of things. Even so, the human being is ill at ease in this strange new environment; and the tension demanded of him weighs heavily on his life and being. He seeks to flee–and tumbles into the snare of dreams; he tries to comply–and falls into the life of organization; he feels maladjusted–and becomes a hypochondriac.”, (Jacques Ellul,Ibid. )
Segal’s figures bridge the difference between being and behaving, making their reality unusually particular and unbearable. Usually members of the middle class ,their intense materiality lifts them out of their class identity: they indisputably exist whatever their collective situation. They are doubly real, unique individuals and collective phenomena at once. Reduced to anonymity in the crowd, they nonetheless hold their own in it. Figures of hope and optimism, if only in the attic of their mind. They are transient details of mass society with whom many can identify; an empathy or dislike or indifference depending on the degree one can recognize our intimate selves in them.
”In some works, such as Nude on Couch (on her back), 1985, the privately lived body is exposed. Clothes are cast off as beside the erotic point. The figure is literally in touch with her body ego. More frequently, the clothed body appears. But sometimes its nakedness is suggested, particularly in the case of women, proverbially more in touch with their bodies than men. Thus, in Rush Hour, the full breast of one of the women presses through her coat, suggesting her private reality — and the fullness of her being. She is no longer just another person rushing to work — a sort of animated robot moving briskly along — but unexpectedly vital: an organic body pressing for expression, her breast emotionally communicative as her clothing and silence — and Segal’s crowd figures are intensely silent, never communicating even when they intimately know each other and have lived together for a long time, asAppalachian Farm Couple, 1991 have — are not. ” ( Donald Kuspit )
Segal’s work is also renown for the details and allegory invoked through the textural surfaces of the sculpture which represent Segal’s vision of human suffering.The ”skin ego” as a repository of latent anxiety and pain of existence. ” The skin ego, the boundary between the body ego and the external world, is the site where all of Segal’s intuitive understanding of the tragic depths becomes manifest. It is the huge area where unconscious feeling and conscious perception converge, giving it an emotional eloquence and expressive power all its own.”