To meet an 80+-year-old artist “doing something I’ve never done before,” I visited Peter Gourfain’s Bedford-Stuyvesant studio in a neighborhood that was low-income when he moved there 30 years ago. The shift to the new style, in which three-dimensional yet abstract heads and hands are collaged together was “sudden and unexpected,” according to the artist.[i]
The five newest works, titled as Studies for Black Lives Matter, are human heads and hands looking out, reaching out, and otherwise being expressive. This new direction, which merges notions of nonrepresentational, figurative, and collage and concepts that are political yet universal, somehow captures global life/strife today as well as the thrusting energy of old, sometimes repressed cultures still fighting to be heard. The overall rounded shape of each sculpture may remind us that the world is a global village with many factions, faces and cultures. Two works contain some animal heads, and one work has a clenched fist – a 1960s symbol for the New Left and the Black Panthers created by artist Frank Cieciorka (1939-2008). Gourfain uses T-1, a heavily-grogged clay with no support armature. His glaze for Black Lives Matter is Val’s Green. “When I started this series, I wasn’t thinking of Black Lives Matter. I want to do something outside the piece itself,” the artist related, “especially since the killings of black men and women keep happening.” After the artist finishes the sculpting process, he bisque fires each work, then glazes it, and then refires it.
The faces are archetypal, and some remind me a bit of the Egyptian series nearby in the studio, which was shown at Hudson Beach Glass in Beacon, New York in 2015. The Egyptian works are detailed table-sized ceramic figures of ancient Egyptian locals: a Field Measurer, a lady making beer for pyramid workers at Giza, a belly dancer doing a backbend, and a couple making love.
The artist’s two story studio and living space is loaded with floor to ceiling bookshelves featuring art and literature from many periods and countries. Sculpture and other arts fill every room and surface — the walls, floor, bureaus, tables, and chairs. The first floor has areas for art-making and a c. 1903 proof press. Bronze works include Animal Vessel, c. 1998, a vessel about 16” tall with a musk ox, rhinoceros, anteater, and seal on top. A nearby bronze hand has abstract portraits as fingers and along the surface; it is a tribute to Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, John F. Kennedy, and Robert Kennedy. He connects these four to the four evangelists Mathew, Mark, Luke, and John, and uses the first two letters of the four names to form the word Mamarojo. In a corner is a bronze titled A Last Supper. It shows overturned chairs and the disciples behaving in an unruly manner. A beautiful relief titled Cree Prophesy, 2001 is the carved top of a wooden cart on wheels that the artist found on the street. The Cree saying, carved between the images, is “After the animals rivers and trees go only then will you know that money cannot be eaten.” Gourfain’s gifts as a story-teller remind me of William Blake, whom the artist says is not an influence, and of Jay Bolotin, another artist without a website who invents parables for our times. One difference is that Bolotin makes up his characters while Gourfain uses his own abstract versions of historic figures and animals; he has a giraffe series that is playful and minimal and a sculpture of a World War II Russian soldier that is realistic, so his style and subject matter ranges but usually centers on animals and people.
In Russell Panczenko’s interview with the artist for his 2002 solo exhibition at the Elvehjem Museum of Art at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Gourfain discusses some of the many disparate themes he turns into art, including Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake, a poem by Herman Melville, Diego Rivera, and migrating caribou.[ii] Lucy Lippard’s essay for this catalog “Silence Would Be a Compromise” may be the best essay to date about the artist’s work. She both details the truly encyclopedic range of references in the art and notes, “What finally distinguishes Gourfain’s art is its peculiar energy. All the passion, tenderness, and rage he feels for the world is channeled (or captive) in the work, which exudes a cantankerous generosity – another one of my personal criteria for good art. He puts into each piece everything that he’s got, all the moral force of his convictions and his doubts.”[iii]
With a New York Times review and a solo show at the Brooklyn Museum to his credit, Gourfain’s most prominent public achievement to date may be the 24 bronze plates, Fate of the Earth, installed as relief walls at both St. John the Divine Cathedral in Harlem (1997) and the Neuberger Museum in Purchase, New York (1998). In 1994, his bronze outdoor sculpture We Shall Overcome, a large hand with relief scenes of Martin Luther King, Jr. and other historic figures and the companion indoor relief Powerful Days were installed at Public School 6 in Brooklyn. Another commission was a 1992 bronze stele for the town of Lowell, Massachusetts (where Kerouac was born, the artist adds) with reliefs telling its history as a cloth manufacturing center.
Gourfain alternates between two-dimensional arts and sculpture in ceramics and bronze. He recently made prints at the Syracuse University Print Department run by Dusty Herbig. With students, he produced up to 20 copies each of seven linocut plates; the artist does not limit the number of prints he makes of each plate, saying, “That’s part of the snob world.” He told me, “I don’t have a mission. I’ve been an artist since I was three; I do what I feel like doing. Getting into art school (at the Art Institute of Chicago) was like going to paradise.” Gourfain also teaches and uses the ceramic studio at Greenwich House Pottery.
[i] All quotes from artist Peter Gourfain during studio visit on 9.29.16. Bisque firing is done at a lower temperature before glazing.
[ii] See Peter Gourfain: Clay, Wood, Bronze, and Works on Paper. “Interview with Peter Gourfain” by Russell Panczenko and “Silence Would Be a Compromise” by Lucy R. Lippard. Madison: Elvehjem Museum of Art, University of Wisconsin-Madison, 2002.
[iii] Ibid, p. 20.