Distilling the Essence

Tucsonan Curt Brill creates untamed, supple bronze figures

Years ago, sculptor Curt Brill made fairly realistic bronzes of the human body, creating well-behaved replicas of nude models in three dimensions.

Then one day, an assistant turned up when Brill was making clay studies of a female model in the studio. The helper and the woman joked around incessantly, and in the jolly atmosphere, Brill resigned himself to getting very little done. But the day turned out to be enormously productive: The work he made inspired him to take his art in a whole new direction.

"Later that night, I came back to the studio and saw that the studies were loose and free and fun in clay," Brill said on Sunday, Nov. 12, during an Open Studio Tour talk at his workspace in the Flowing Wells neighborhood.

From then on, Brill tried to preserve the clay's unruliness when he translated his work to bronze, and his figures were set free at last. Ever since, they have been joyously untamed and wonderfully supple. Exaggerated Amazons with impossibly long limbs and powerful stances, the female nudes plant their big hands on their hips or drape them casually onto the floor. They dig their big feet into the ground, and twist their torsos with all the grace of modern dancers.

Perhaps best of all, their bronze "skin" still bears Brill's handprints in the clay--he calls the marks "calligraphy." This deliciously textured surface, its separate clay layers still visible in the bronze, ripples and careens into space. An arm might end briefly at an elbow, and recommence below. A foot might metamorphose into a giant distortion ("I dislike the word 'blob' when applied to my sculpture," Brill joked with one of his studio visitors), but it nevertheless conjures up the true nature of the foot and its movements.

"I've worked with the model enough times that I'm not trying to reproduce what is there," he explained. "I'm trying to distill the essence of the thing. I used to teach drawing, and the best way to draw is to squint, and filter out everything but the lights and darks."

Like drawings come to life, his sculptures do exactly that, filtering out the extraneous and exaggerating the essential. No details remain on these rough stretched figures: no eyes or lips on the face, no nipples on the breast, and sometimes no fingers on the hand. What remains is an evocation of the life force.

A longtime Tucson artist, Brill primarily shows his work out of town, with rare exceptions. An exhibition organized two years ago by former chief curator Peter Briggs at the University of Arizona Museum of Art celebrated Brill and two other Arizona sculptors. Now, The Gallery at 6th and 6th, a new gallery that primarily features out-of-town artists, has opened a solo show of Brill's sculptures and drawings in metal and ink.

Curt Brill: Sculpture and Gesture showcases his monumental "Diana," some 10 feet tall; four life-sized figures; and seven small maquettes, all in bronze, along with six ink drawings on paper and six low-relief bronze "drawings."

"These sculptures are carefree and approachable, unlike traditional monumental bronzes," says gallery owner Lauren Rabb, a transplant from the East Coast. "They engage you. They're playful."

The charming giantess "Diana," from 2005, is classic Brill. Rising up toward the ceiling in the little gallery in the Warehouse District, she stands with one leg bent, the other straight, her back nicely curved, and her arms folded loosely across her belly. Crafted through a complicated process that goes from clay to molds to lost wax to ceramic and finally to molten bronze, she nonetheless retains all the freshness of a clay work quickly slapped together. The lovely patina of green and gray, applied in the final stages of construction, emphasizes the folds and textures of her body.

Closer to life-sized, "Reclining Dana," also from 2005, lies on a horizontal box, luxuriously stretching out her oversized legs. Her supple metal flesh seems to be melting into the wood below. Leaning her tiny head on one arm, she dangles the other downward toward a patch of artificial green grass on the floor, a playful reminder that these sculptures are meant to be placed outdoors. Her metal flesh is a mottled brown with black speckles.

Brill also exhibits something he didn't at the UAMA show: small low-relief bronze "drawings" that head even closer to abstraction than the sculptures do. Mounted on steel, these painterly bronze images, made of liquid-looking ovals and circles and bean shapes, could safely be called blobs. But the irregular forms add up to a luscious shorthand for the human body. And lined up in a row, the untitled drawings, each one depicting a different movement, are like notes from a dance performance.

He even goes into true drawing, with a series of black ink works on white paper, lively works that explore gesture in quick strokes. They must provide the artist with a satisfying counterpoint to the time-consuming sculptures. Such works, Brill told his tour audience, take a year and a half to two years to make.

He even has three studios on his property to accommodate the multiple stages. And he relies on a team of high-tech artisans to help him, including a digital scanner in California who translates the early small-scale maquettes into photo images that serve as the blueprint for the large-scale versions. Another California craftsman makes large-scale foam pieces that will hold the plaster mold, and a foundry in Sedona casts them into bronze.

"I felt guilty using the digital scans at first," Brill said, but he consoled himself that the sculptors of the past had workshops filled with indispensable apprentices. "Computers and other technology have replaced the apprentices."

Still, he likes the lowest-tech studio best, the one lit entirely by natural light streaming in through ceiling-high widows and skylights, and warmed by a wood-burning stove. It's here, he said, that he does the first, most important work on his complicated sculptures. This is the room to which his models come, and where he rapidly sketches their figures on paper, over and over, getting his best images, he says, when they're not even posing, but moving around, combing their hair, sitting down for a rest. After dozens of drawings, when he's warmed up, he slaps his clay onto armatures, swiftly making art approximations of their living flesh.

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