Marble carries meaning. It is revealed in the glitter of crystals in an otherwise dull surface or through the veins, clouds, and streaks of gray-green, gold, and cream that course though polished stone. The durability and hardness of the material embodies deep geological time. Marble seems to belong to a distant era, an earlier age. Nonetheless, there’s something perverse about this material, because what is at odds with marble’s transcendent nature is the weight of the stone and the way it asks us to touch it, to warm it with our hands, and to shape it into likenesses of ourselves.
The Apuane Alps in the Garfagnana area of Italy are white with marble. Their slopes are composed of marble chips, and their summits, which seem frozen with snow and ice, are walls of the purest marble, “the whitest quarried from the greatest heights” (Alvera, 1986). Those marble chips can be substantial pieces of rock, detrita from the blocks of stone that are sliced from the mountains. The stray rocks tumble into streams below, where the local studio Garfagnana Innovazione fishes them from the water with a pulley, transports them to their laboratory, and digitally scans them. This in fact is the beginning of the project that has culminated in the current exhibition at the University of Alberta FAB Gallery, “Within the Weight of Action.”
Before putting tools to stone the sculptors first created maquettes from plasticine, oil clay, wet paper (just as sculptors would first make wooden or clay models as part of their studio practice in early modern Europe). They scanned them and submitted their designs to Garfagnana Innovazione. The passage from maquette to digital image allowed a certain degree of fluidity to enter the making process. Thomas Fenton observes that “the software that paired with the scanner left strange liquid textures, the software for my printer made large facets and bristled seams.” When that digital image was then milled from the marble in Italy by the 7 Axis Robotic Arm, even greater fluidity entered the process. In 2017 the artists traveled to their marbles. Early this year the sculptures traveled to the artists in Edmonton, where they worked and reworked the surfaces with farrier files, hand chisels, drills, grinders, diamond-cutting tools.
The question, then, in a sense was one of how much fluidity the sculptors were willing to tolerate. How much were they willing to share their animation of marble with machine? Fenton and Royden Mills both chose to play with the glitches created from conceptualization up through the milling of the sculpture; Marilyn Langevin and Carson Tarnasky decided to circle back to organic shapes that seem outside of the domain of the machine and are so smooth and natural that they almost seem outside of the domain of the hand as well.
Royden Mills’ playful appropriation of the serpentine lines of the Laocoön, for instance, is enhanced by cascading slices into the marble that deepen and amplify the cuts made by the robot. They give the rounded lines of Laocoön’s raised shoulder and arm a sharp, scaley appearance, as if it had merged with the serpents entwining it in the original. The texture also evokes the sliced-up look of human bodies digitally reconstructed through MRI and CT scans. Mills’ manipulation of the surface–his collaboration with the milling robot–takes the timelessness of the marble and situates it in the future.
Royden Mills, Beyond a Tenuous Fortitude. 2021.
Fenton’s sculpted torso bends forward and pushes through the digital noise around it, now rendered in stone. It dances. To be sure, there is an opposing gesture towards the stasis of the past as well: long-lived patterns from a wooden chest at his family’s home ornament the body and the hands on the torso’s hips more literally seem to pull it backwards. But Fenton’s exaggeration of the marks of the scanning and milling process translate into something approaching cinematic movement, where skin peels away from imperfect muscle and the layers in the thighs and butt look as if they have been digitally laminated together. It is an unstable movement, though, a tenuous movement, as if the figure were about to disappear.
Thomas Fenton, Lion Dance. 2021.
In the same gallery space, Marilyn Langevin’s sculpted dress billows and falls from a cinched waist in heavy folds to layered rock. She has managed to achieve a solidity through meticulous rendering of pleats, wrinkles, the way the fabric wetly clings to a female form. Still, that solidity is misleading. For the keyhole sleeves are fragile as shells, and the empty arm holes only underline the fact that the dress is worn by a figure invisible to us. The dress stands on its own. Its ghostly presence (not so different from Fenton’s sculpture) is created precisely because of Langevin’s astonishing skill in making stone look like fabric.
Carson Tarnasky’s sculpture sluggishly swirls and bells out. It pulses. Grooved creases between knobs of fleshy forms emphasize their dropping weight. The marble is so soft, so floury in its finish, that it seems as if it never encountered a drill or chisel (or robot), but simply was coaxed into its shape. It is abstract, but even so, there is something human about this sculpture, a kind of suggestion of the body that is more monumental than a straightforward representation of human form.
To return to the marble: the material itself impels us to see figures sculpted from it as if autonomous, like flesh liberated from stone. Even inanimate things in the world take on an aura of aliveness when rendered in marble. Partly hence, the conjoining of the smooth breast and stomach muscles of a female torso (a perfected Venus) by Kelly Johner with a leather saddle tree–or differently, the exoskeleton of the tree defining the shape of an abstract female torso–asks us not only to become sensitive to formal slippage between a body and a thing, but also to the ways in which marble acts on us. The tangibility of the details sitting over the forms–gently cut bolts and straps, or softly chiseled doily patterns–only enhance that sense that we are seeing something that belongs within our own sensory world. The figures are as if alive. As if. Ridges and rows of cuts work visually like fibrous tissue connecting muscle to bone and form to the marble itself.
Kelly Johner, Venus Torso. 2021.
The gallery space in which Johner’s torso-trees are displayed is shared with Alicia Proudfoot’s representation of what the artist describes as her damaged lungs. Belled shapes like halved pomegranates are filled with seeds-turned-polyps (the fleshy organs of the lungs are transfigured by botanic form, or perhaps it’s the other way around). They are squeezed at the centre by a marble rope suspended from the sky, or from nowhere. The polyps spill outwards in high relief against deep undercutting; they reflect bright light above a shadowy darkness. It’s a formal exploration of the materiality of the non-material (light), though it also is the case that sculptors of marble refer to shadow as “colour.” The more literal application of colour in the form of dark pink resin that threads through tiny veins and cracks in the surface tugs the white marble back from its place out of time and brings it more firmly into the artist’s and our own ambit.
Alicia Proudfoot, Pomegranate Yoyo. 2021.
Digital Stone Project: Edmonton, “Within the Weight of Action” may be viewed at the University of FAB Gallery through October 29. On view:
Royden Mills, A Tenuous Fortitude. 2018. Beyond a Tenuous Fortitude. 2021.
Marilyn Langevin, The Trilogy: Undaunted. 2021.
Thomas Fenton, Lion Dance. 2021.
Carson Tarnasky, Pillow and Linger. 2021.
Alicia Proudfoot, Pomegranate Yoyo. 2021.
Kelly Johner, Opera del Nonna and Venus Torso. 2021.
Manpreet Singh, Photo documentation and videography.
Alvera, A. 1986. “The Marble Mountains of the Garfagnana.” The New York Times (September 7).