Plensa & Public and Private: The extraordinary beauty of the ordinary human form in two shows at the Tampa Museum of Art.

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click to enlarge Plensa’s larger-than-life-sized figures, “Soul of Words I and II,” extend the exhibition beyond the museum’s walls. - ryan walsh
ryan walsh
Plensa’s larger-than-life-sized figures, “Soul of Words I and II,” extend the exhibition beyond the museum’s walls.

As Gasparilla arts season gears up to bring thousands of people to Curtis Hixon Park in March, the Tampa Museum of Art is putting on quite a show outdoors. Through mid-May, an exhibition of works by Spanish sculptor Jaume Plensa extends beyond the museum’s walls and around its perimeter, where visitors can find a handful of Plensa’s life-sized-and-larger figures to contemplate and pose with in artful selfies. They range from a set of bronze men embossed with the names of famous musical composers (made from a cast of Plensa’s own body), who hug palm trees near the museum’s entrance, to a 23-foot-tall cast iron head of a young woman titled “Laura with Bun,” which greets visitors approaching from the Straz Center.

These sculptures are not as interactive as Plensa’s “Crown Fountain” in downtown Chicago — a playful video-and-glass construction featuring images of city residents who “spit” out jets of water, which has made his name widely known in the U.S. Nevertheless, they charge TMA with populist energy. (The bronze men have proven a bit too enticing, spurring the museum to encircle them with gravel and yellow caution tape to keep climbers away.)

“Without my work in the public I guess I think something is wrong with my life,” Plensa said during an interview last month at TMA. “To collaborate with communities is fantastic. May times people don’t know about art because nobody really invites them to be engaged. That happens on many different levels in our society.”

Inside the museum, visitors will find more — sculptures, drawings and prints that amount, along with the outdoor works, to the largest exhibition of Plensa’s work to date in the U.S., Jaume Plensa: Human Landscape. Organized by the Cheekwood Botanical Garden and Museum of Art in Nashville, the exhibition travels next to Toledo.

Each of Plensa’s figures is based on an actual person — typically a young woman between the ages of 8 and 14 — who, through changes in scale and translation into metal, wood or marble, becomes a Buddha-like presence and stand-in for all humanity. Often Plensa finds himself explaining why the figures have their eyes closed or seem lost in thought; it’s because their beauty, he says with utter earnestness, is inside.

“Every single person is an amazing container of beauty in motion. Many times because we have a complex, we don’t trust enough about ourselves. We don’t talk. We repeat the ideas of others. No — stop. Let’s think about ourselves. Who I am? Where I am going to go? Art should help every single person be as he is or she is. That is my obsession.”

The obsession becomes a practical affair in Plensa’s studio, where he 3D scans the heads of models and manipulates them as digital forms. (Because of the girls’ youth, they’re invited to come with their families to the studio on a Saturday.) “Laura with Bun,” for example, is elongated so that the girl’s face looks surreally narrow when approached straight on, but reveals a fully round profile as a viewer moves around the sculpture. From the digital model, Plensa and his team use traditional methods including casting, carving and sculpting by hand to create the final works. In the case of two huge wire heads inside TMA, based on a pair of young women from the Dominican Republic named Awilda and Irma, it took his team nine months to figure out how to recreate the effect of a digital wireframe by hand. As a result of their efforts, the two heads appear peculiarly spectral in space. (The method is now one of Plensa’s best. Last summer a similar wire head was installed inside the Basilica of San Giorgio Maggiore during the Venice Biennale to acclaim.)

“When I take the portrait, that person immediately doesn’t exist anymore. In my work I always had the dream to merge sculpture and photography — something that seems it is representing eternity with something that represents the ephemeral.”

In Plensa’s work, the figure often combines with language, either in the form of words or letters from Latin and non-Latin alphabets. It’s a device that feels wondrous the first time you see it (if a bit trite on repeat encounter) — and rich with the simple insight that humans consist, in a sense, of communication. A particularly good, and sparing, example is a trio of oversized figures whose gestures mime the adage “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil.” (Plensa describes them as angels.) Made of translucent white fiberglass and illuminated from within, they sit perpendicular to the gallery walls above a viewer’s head, as if defying gravity. Look up, and you’ll find words such as “insomnia” and “hysteria” spelling out humankind’s psychic demons across their faces.

Among the few figureless pieces in the exhibition is one that takes the form of a curtain of language — metal letters that make up lines of poetry by Shakespeare, Goethe, Dante, Allen Ginsberg and others. Visitors should walk through the curtain, which fills a breezeway in the museum, or glide hands along it, to generate sound by clinking the letters together. The lines of poetry can also be read, though only about half are in English; like many of Plensa’s works, this one makes a melting pot of languages. The piece pays homage to the artist’s mother, who toted him along as a child to stores where curtains of beads adorned the entrance.

“I always thought those curtains protected the store from mosquitos, and I always thought that poetry protected us from the mosquitos of life,” Plensa said. “If you are surrounded by poetry, you’ll be safe. I also thought that poetry is like a curtain — one day you should decide to pass through.”

click to enlarge An 1896 painting by the French artist Paul Signac is part of Public/Private. - Loaned by the Kasser Mochary Art Foundation, Montclair, New Jersey
Loaned by the Kasser Mochary Art Foundation, Montclair, New Jersey
An 1896 painting by the French artist Paul Signac is part of Public/Private.

The Plensa show is complemented at TMA by Public and Private—The Figure Examined: Masterworks from the Kasser Mochary Art Foundation.

When Mary Mochary’s family started their foundation in 1968, their goal was to lend pieces from their collection of European and American painting and sculpture to museums in mid-sized cities across the U.S. However, she told a VIP crowd at the Tampa Museum of Art last week, that goal began to seem outdated as museums proliferated outside of major art centers and other cultural shifts — the advent of the Internet, one presumes — made visual art more accessible.

Mochary’s pleasure was evident as she helped usher in Public and Private. The exhibition includes more than 100 paintings, sculptures and works on paper by 19th and 20th century artists including Matisse, Picasso, Degas, Rodin, Mary Cassatt, Diego Rivera and Andy Warhol. Landing in Tampa after a debut in Tucson, it marks a belated realization of her family’s vision.

With oversized Plensa sculptures populating half of TMA’s galleries and a selection of the museum’s impressive antiquities in place, the exhibition’s timing is apt. There’s a lot of dialogue about the human figure going on across time.

It’s possible to start off at a 2,100-year-old carved limestone head of Arsinoë II, a Ptolemaic Egyptian queen, and traverse millennia in a few steps just by moving from the antiquities gallery to the Kasser Mochary show next door. There, Renoir’s soft, round "Head of Venus" (1915) in bronze might strike you as a similar exemplar of beauty, somehow unaltered by the passage of time. Or the blunt abstraction of Henry Moore’s "Two Seated Figures Against a Wall" (1960) might remind you of how far some art has strayed from such ideals in a struggle to find new ones.

Still other possibilities include marveling at Cassatt’s tender portrait of a ruddy-faced young woman (her niece), deciphering the Picasso-esque figures in an early Jackson Pollock collage, or appreciating the graphic finesse of Warhol’s hand-drawn illustration of urban men.

Consider it all a primer for Plensa, and one worth visiting on its own merits alone.

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