The Sleep of Reason
March 21 - May 28, 2000
What first grips the viewer, upon entering this exhibition of William Tucker's work, is a sense of presence. Even as the mind begins working to make sense of these enigmatic objects, that presence remains. And in the end, whatever sense the mind does make of them, it must be in terms of that presence, not in terms of logical explanations. Upon reflection, the viewer begins to see how a variety of elements conspire together to create this powerful presence: there is the sheer physical weight and gravity of these forms and their materials; there is the dense mass which is, nevertheless, not static but pulsing; and there are the brooding colors in the patinaed surfaces (colors not so much applied to the surface as inherent in the materiality of the forms). And there is the extraordinary tension between the weightiness of volume and mass, played against the restless ebb and flow of ragged contours which ripple everywhere to the alternating tempos of dance and dirge, moving ceaselessly through what is utterly three-dimensional form. Then, too, there is the sheer throb and pulse of convexities and concavities. (The same should be said, in the two-dimensional language of drawing, about the six charcoal drawings in the exhibition.)
Inhabiting these physical qualities of form is another kind of presence. These elusive objects are—simultaneously—human heads, abstract masses, primeval stones harvested from the earth's molten deep, and anguished interior states of mind harvested from the psyche's deep. Yet these objects never "represent" such things as heads, abstract masses, primeval stones, or states of mind. Rather, such things are immanent within them, thoroughly internalized into the conditions of bronze or charcoal. There they evoke a range of human meanings—tragedy, ecstasy, violence, decay, but equally, sensual pleasure, inspiration, birth, and release.
Tucker's sculpted objects and drawings exist. They commune with the viewer in the honest terms of their own matter and making. And those terms haunt and move us because we sense in their qualities the same conditions by which we exist. That is, they bear within themselves qualities analogous to our experience as organic beings who are also made of form and matter ripe with an array of meanings. We, too, are bound to the sheer physical weight and gravity of matter, and yet are never static, never fully resolved, always in tension. Our own experiences are an elusive shifting of tempos, dances and dirges, and we, too, throb and pulse in the convexities and concavities of our beings, seeking stability yet always roiling with passion and decay.
Have thus positioned our own presences in resonance with the presences of Tucker's works, other levels of meaning begin to open. There are, for example, the titles of these pieces: "Our Leader," "The Good Soldier," and "The Persecutor." There is "Icarus," "A Poet for Our Time," and the "Sleeping Musician." Or there is "Little Jeanne" and "Maria Luisa." There seem to be universal types, emblematic of society's political figures and oppressors, its self-destroying mythic heroes, its creative artists, and its women. They are gathered here under the rubric of the exhibition title chosen by Tucker, The Sleep of Reason. This title, too, feels universal in appeal. But it is also inescapably linked to the Spanish artist, Francesco Goya, who was the visual poet of his time from the 1790s until his death in 1828. Goya was Court Painter of Spain and knew these "types" first-hand. He witnessed the incompetence of Spain's leadership in its King, in the corrupt court life where Queen Maria Luisa worked her guile, and in the dark religious persecution of the Spanish Inquisition. Goya was eye-witness to military atrocities under the good soldiers of Napoleon which occupied Spain and against whom he created his angry, Disasters of War prints.
In his portfolio of etchings called, Caprichos, Goya ruthlessly satirized social corruption and human folly. Caprichos #43 (originally intended as the frontispiece) bears the title, El sueno de la razon produce monstruos (The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters). In it, we see a young male intellectual fallen into a troubled sleep, dreaming at his writing desk. His sleep (or dream) looms up out of the darkness behind him. In that darkness, owls of wisdom emanate from his head, only to metamorphose into bats of evil. The subtlety of Goya's word choice is as rich as his image, for sueno translates both as sleep and as dream, thereby giving ambiguity to reason and the producing of social monsters. Goya belonged to the intellectual class which embraced the Enlightenment belief that reason is the chief tool of human hope. He had seen the irrational forces of social custom, superstition, witchcraft, and the Inquisition's religious persecutions gather enormous power while reason slept. But he also lived in the time when the French Revolution, spawned by the utopian dreams of reason, had begotten the blood-letting of Robespierre's Reign of Terror, soon followed by Napoleon's brutal conquest and occupation of Spain. Goya knew the fruits of reason to be both sweet and bitter. He knew the ambiguity of human nature and its ability to corrupt reason as a force by blending it with irrational passions.
It is this same brooding complexity that I think William Tucker explores. As an artist, Goya was working within a representational and narrative tradition. Yet he was one of the first artists seeking to reveal the interior human condition more directly. His imaginative invention of portraying a man's dreams allowed him a more abstract and more irrational kind of imagery by which to explore the intensely subjective forces within the heart and mind of human beings. Tucker continues that exploration. But as an artist, Tucker is working within an abstract modern tradition. One of the great achievements of modern art is its capacity to gain access directly into the sheer immediacy of our interior condition. It does so by way of skirting literal narrative and representation. The best modern art only minimally references naturalistic narrative and appearances (giving just enough to moor the viewer in external reality), while honing in on the more abstract pith of feeling, idea, emotion, and state of mind. This makes possible a thorough-going fusion of image and ideas and emotion, folding these into the very processes and nature of materials, until unified expressive objects emerge, such as these pieces by Tucker.
T. S. Eliot once defined metaphysical poetry as being neither poetic philosophy nor philosophical poetry; rather, he said, it was something distinct and true in its own terms because it had fused at a very high temperature the core of each, creating something new. So it is with Tucker's sculptures and charcoal drawings. We cannot merely say that these are "heads." Nor are they merely "abstract" sculptures, nor "stones" quarried from nature. Instead, they are—in the way that metaphysical poetry is—some kind of distinct essence embodies in its own terms. They are The Sleep of Reason, with all the rich complex possibilities and nuances of meaning that such a pregnant phrase carries. If they are "heads," it is only because reason is inseparable from the human mind as head and face. If they are "abstractions," it is only because reason is an abstract process that cannot be represented naturalistically. And if they are "stones," it is only because reason links us to the earth even as it separates us from the earth. But they are really all and none of these. They are about that mysterious force within us which creates and births, but also violently destroys. No wonder these works writhe as if simultaneously emerging into life itself while brutally decaying into death or madness. It is William Tucker, I think, who is one of the great "poets" of our time. His is a poetry of form tested against the witness of the psyche.
Wayne L. Roosa, Ph.D.
Professor of Art History, Bethel University