Robert F. DeCaprio Art Gallery, Moraine Valley Community College
Before I enter the gallery to view Benjamin Entner: Ego Sum, I am faced with a poster of the exhibit, cautioning me that what I am about to see includes nudity – as though the naked male body could in some way be considered offensive. For an artist who is specifically addressing (if not outright imitating) classical, sculptural, figural forms, it seems the use of the nude as a suitable appropriation to question traditional depictions of man, the curiosities of narcissism, and formal applications of media. In the realm of contemporary art, or within a conversation about the history of art at large, is such a notice really necessary? Is there an audience who would consider a nude human body to be offensive? I can hear the hum of several bathroom fans as I round the corner to view Entner’s inflated drawings, and I wonder…what exactly am I in for?
In his own words, Entner describes his work as “exploring the boundaries and interplay between two and three-dimensional methods of making. Specifically, the point at which a drawing can become form and an object can become representation.” Entner is formally trained as a sculptor, though his interests and materials vary dependent on the concepts he wishes to address, he is obviously skilled in the two-dimensional arts as well. Each figure is drawn onto a sheet of non-porous nylon fabric, sewn together with other drawings of the same pose, and inflated at a scale and shape similar to the sculpture it references. Each is made with a keen awareness to art historical precedents and is a direct reference to or parody of the figurative work of Classical and Renaissance masters. Though the drawings, accurate and textural, play the starring role in these works, they are only successful because they are transformed into sizable sculptures.
Conceptually, Ego Sum, or I am in Latin, is about having fun with narcissism. So common in Greek sculpture, the male (in body as well as persona) is presented not necessarily as is actual but as one strives to and believes they are perceived. In stark contrast, Entner offers up an honest, un-idealized portrait of himself drawn in the pose and fashion of a historical sculpture: a stand-in for the likes of Gods forever carved and epitomized in marble and stone. With a skillful and sarcastic wit, Entner brings us to his point through material and presentation: an average man, drawn in the round, and literally inflated (a clever nod to the notion of ego) to stand in for an ideal.
Colossus of Primaporta, is a gargantuan, balloon-like self-portrait wearing only socks squeezed horizontally into a corner of the gallery. Its exceptional size and materials catch me off guard, and this massive male nude lying on its side admittedly overwhelms me. Looking over his shoulder with a coy yet surprised expression, Entner has masterfully constructed an engaging two-dimensional, yet three-dimensional sculpture: a carefully crafted and simple puzzle of concept perfectly blended with material. Because the work is literally shoved into a corner and extending to almost half of the gallery, I am unable to walk around the piece in its entirety; but the folds and shapes of each section of his body offer exciting mini-objects to consider when there is not enough distance to take in the piece wholly. And because the work is made of fabric, I have to stop myself from reaching out and running my hand along the length of the artist’s enormous hairy legs.
Philosopher and author Ayn Rand once noted (and I quote loosely), “…sculpture expresses an artist’s view of existence through a confined treatment of three-dimensional shapes and concrete entities, specifically, only the figure of man can project a metaphysical meaning. It is the requirement [of the sense of touch] that the texture of a human body be a crucial element in sculpture, and virtually a hallmark of great sculptors.” Entner explores this necessary sense of touch, not through the softness, the smoothness, or the pliant resiliency of the skin conveyed by rigid marble, but through inflated slick fabric engulfed by velvety drawn silhouettes mimicking the richly carved areas of texture of the masters he emulates.
With his thick reference to classical sculpture combined with a question of our perception of ourselves (as well as others), Enter’s work brings to mind the ideas of philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. In several writings on the topics of aesthetics, GWF Hegel acknowledged that while art can perform various functions, his primary concern was what he considered art’s most distinctive purpose: to give intuitive, sensuous expression to the freedom of spirit. Art must bring to mind truths about ourselves that we often lose sight of in our everyday activity; that is to say, art at its best presents us with the ideal of freedom. Subsequently then, true art is essentially figurative, not because it seeks to imitate nature, but because its purpose is to express and embody free spirit and this is achieved most adequately through images of human beings. This ideal of human (and divine) freedom constitutes true beauty and is found above all, Hegel claims, interestingly enough, in ancient Greek sculptures of gods and heroes.
As a basis for exploration, these ancient works are ripe for replication and replacement; but here is where Entner takes a hard right while continuing to embrace the idea of the “ideal”. Hegel argued that the point of art, though, is not to be realistic (to imitate or mirror the contingencies of everyday life), but rather to show us what divine and human freedom looks like. Such sensuous expression of spiritual freedom is what Hegel referred to as the “Ideal,” or true beauty. The interesting paradox is that while I can agree with Hegel that art communicates truth through idealized images of human beings (as noted through historical precedent and the basis for the work on view), I am more engaged by Entner’s hypothesis: an un-idealized self-portrait of a man in everyday activities reveals divine truth through it’s simple beauty. Entner, in his own words, notes “Ego Sum…it’s not about my ego, but it derives more from the word Summis, which means we are all mortal.” A comparison meant to be funny is, in fact, an accessible reflection and comment on perception (both internal and external), intentional or not. Entner harnesses Hegel’s appreciation for the ideal through the his select depiction of the human figure, but explodes his notion that the common man or our collective sense of the everyday should be invisible in order for a work of art to express the freedom of spirit. It is in an over-sized depiction of our regular selves (epitomized through the figure of the artist) that we might, instead, find the most honest, reflective, and humorous truths.
The story of Hermes and the Infant Dionysus, briefly, is that the mother of Dionysus, Themele, died from terror when Zeus appeared to her in his entire splendor. Pregnant at the time and upon her death, Zeus took the infant and sent him to the nymphs in Crete, who resided with Hermes (known as the messenger of the Gods). According to the myth, when the baby Dionysus would begin to cry, Hermes would show him a shiny object to keep him
quiet, notably represented in the referenced sculpture The Diamond of Olympia. In Entner’s version of Hermes and the Infant Dionysus, Entner’s own mini-me in boxers plays the part of the infant Dionysus, arms outreached in the arc of a burgeoning embrace, while Hermes casually stands nude in a traditional contrapposto pose. Neither figure appears to comfort the other, though the appearance of the common stepladder suggests this household item is to humorously serve as the substituted shiny object that placates the infant version of the artist. By depicting himself not only as Hermes, but also as Dionysus, Entner not-so-subtly poses an over-reaching answer to the question of ego: in the end, we are merely all just seeking our own approval.
Apoxyomenos, depicts the artist as one of the conventional subjects of ancient Greek votive sculpture, the Scraper: traditionally an athlete, caught in the familiar act of scraping sweat and dust from his body with a small curved instrument called a strigil. Here, however, the strigil is replaced with a putty knife and rather than a fig leaf covering his private parts, Entner incorporates a strategically placed and over-sized potted plant. By far, the wittiest piece on view, Entner pokes fun at himself in his role as artist – this self-deprecation signals that the work (and its concern) is meant to be humorous. And in the end, I shouldn’t take myself so seriously either.
Entner’s inflatable sculptural drawings question and challenge contemporary and historical perspectives of beauty, sexuality, ego, and the idealized form; whether he means for them to or not. Perhaps a more apt title for this exploration would be the lengthier: Qui diligit me, quia ego sum, or Love me for who I am.
Images from top to bottom (taken by author EMCox): EGO SUM: Colossus of Primaporta, 2014, marker on fabric and bathroom fans, 42 feet in length, commissioned by the Soap Factory, Minneapolis, MN; EGO SUM: Hermes and the Infant Dionysus, 2011, marker on fabric and bathroom fans, 10 x 3.5 x 5 feet; EGO SUM: Apoxyomenos, 2011, marker on fabric and bathroom fans