Nathan Mabry’s Historically Heavy Pirates, Bears, And Cats Come To Savannah

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Nathan Mabry‘s “Process Art (B-E-A-G-G-R-E-S-S-I-V-E),” which takes part of its title from the common cheerleading exhortation, is on view at the SCAD Museum of Art, part of Savannah College of Art and Design’s annual deFINE Art Festival. (The festival also features concurrent exhibitions from the likes of Matthew Brandt, Alfredo Jaar, Tim Rollins and K.O.S., and Sam Nhlengethwa). Mabry’s sculptural installation is based on Rodin’s 1899 The Burghers of Callais, although the L.A. artist’s iteration places oversized mascot masks atop the human heads. I met with him in Savannah to chat about his whimsically updated bourgeoise.

Has this work been shown before, and how did it come about?

It was made in 2010. It comes from a series called “Process Art.” How I came to it was that I was taking latex Halloween masks and going to outdoor sculpture parks–putting a mask on a sculpture, taking a photo, then getting kicked out. This was the genesis of the work.  It was contextualizing the sculpture, finding new narratives, and it was also a fun, guerrilla act. I’d set up the tripod, get the right angle, and then throw the mask on. From that I started [thinking], How could i make this a more permanent object? I found readymade sculptures that were human scale that I could work with. I would buy a readymade sculpture, find a mask, cast the mask in bronze, and unite the two. Through that process there’s a lot that happened that would change the effect of the original sculpture. This particular sculpture was made in 2010;  it was first shown in Portugal in 2010 after it was finished, and then at the Nasher Sculpture Center. I really wanted to work with the Burghers of Calais, this emotionally charged piece . It references the Hundred Years’ War in the late 1400s. Working with this piece compresses time and uses this idea of, What is the monument? What are you monumentalizing?

For this particular piece you commissioned a foundry to create it. But for similar works in this series, you’re generally starting out by purchasing reproductions of sculptures by people like Rodin?

Unauthorized copies. I’s strange that they even exist–who’s buying an 8-foot tall Thinker, for your backyard?

Where did the masks come from?

Those are to-scale sports mascot heads. I like this sculpture to be like a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure. You can focus on Rodin, the masks, or the conceptual aspects. Rodin’s work was a monument to war and defeat. If you add  contemporary sports, it deflates that,but at the same time you question the contemporary spectacle of society.

The masks represent actual, specific team mascots?

They’re more universal. The only one that’s singular–and it’s funny that it’s in Georgia–is the bulldog. There aren’t too many bulldogs out there. You have a generic cat, a bear. The pirate, who’s the central figure, holding the keys to the city. They’re their own archetypes.

With your earlier photo series–putting actual masks on sculptures in parks–did you ever do that with a Rodin? 

I didn’t. Rodins, those are heavily guarded. Private collectors would contact me: ‘We have these old sculptures, like a George Segal. Could you put a mask on it, take a photo, and we’ll buy the photo?’ Sure! So then I started thinking, This is a professional practice now, I’m going to contact a museum! Every museum turned me down.

In some ways the composition of the sculpture reminds me of Ai Weiwei’s Circle of Animals.

People have brought that up. It’s interesting. The Ai Weiwei is a reproduction of a zodiac, and [my piece] has a strange spiritual aspect, in a good way. The sculptures of Rodin are so anguished and horrified of what has happened to them, and the masks really mirror that emotion.

Where was the sculpture produced?

In Portugal, at a pretty crazy foundry–a boat propeller foundry that’s been around for a hundred years. We did a sand-casting technique, which was insane. Usually with bronze you’ll make a mold, dip it into a ceramic shell, and burn out the wax–it can take 2 to 3 weeks. With this you do a sand mold around the wax, pull out the wax, put the mold back together, pour in bronze, and you have a bronze sculpture in 2 hours.

Whats your own relationship to Savannah?

Savannah’s amazing. I love this part of the country. And SCAD, it’s pretty phenomenal, the scope of what they’re doing here. I had no idea how expansive it is. The deFINE Art exhibitions, they’re powerful shows. A lot of my generations makes decorative objects, for the most part. We’re interested in the ideals of modernism, and a lot of people recreate that without questioning it. I think the exhibitions here  are pushing boundaries.

Nathan Mabry’s “Process Art (B-E-A-G-G-R-E-S-S-I-V-E)” is on view at SCAD Museum of Art through June 22. His next solo show opens in early May at Cherry and Martin in Los Angeles.