Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Isabel McIlvain and the rumor of body-casting



Concerning the above view, earlier in the year I wrote:


"Isabel McIlvain" picks beautiful young bodies and then organizes them with a stately, dreamlike, cold perfection that I find solemn and delicious. This is the most classical of classical sculpture: realism and idealism inseparable. There are no forms in a real body - since every shape melts into the next-- and she's caught that melting -- even as she's made a nice little piece of 18th century chamber music."


More recently, Jason Gillespie informed me that Ms. McIlvain now had her own website, was a body-caster, and he wrote:

Her work, is about the best I've seen in terms of the "artistic" use of body casting. I'm sure in person it would be more obvious. Some of her works are distinctly more well done than others....in terms of posing the form and giving it that sculptural feel. Some like this one lack much of an aesthetic and remind one of Duane Hanson's work sans the pigmentation.


(Please read the anonymous comment below, however -- where a McIlvain student says he never saw her make a body cast)

I have so many bad associations with body casting -- I don't know where to begin.

Or maybe I'll begin with the form of DEATH -- because that is the effect that is usually offered -- a complex form (like skin over fat-muscle-bone) that lacks the breath of spirit -- like a body that has just died.

Body casting is also evidence of another kind of death: the death of the figure sculpture tradition -- where body casting replaces the abandoned art of figure modeling.

Body-casting is a tool that allows those without modeling skills to make life-size figure sculpture that present a convincing illusion -- but for those who are aware of what sculpture has done and can do -- it is a very, very small tool box.


But still I admit -- I like some of Isabel's statues (or - more precisely - I like some photographed views of her work) -- and come to think of it -- I've always enjoyed looking at some of the specimens displayed at the natural history museum: especially the dead butterflies and beatles -- and sometimes the art of the taxidermist as well -- the carefully preserved hides stretched over sculpted forms -- which I don't think is too different from how Ms. McIlvan must work: using the body cast as the structure, and then adjusting the surface -- and come to think of it -- these surface adjustments -- and the resulting design --- would be what distinguishes her from most taxidermists and artisans of the wax museum -- because sometimes that resulting design references great historic sculpture.

"References" is the post-modern, academic word for it - but you could also just say that she likes some Euro and sometimes Hindu classical sculpture -- and sometimes she's trying to make things that give her the same pleasure that they have.

But then, as Jason notes, sometimes she's not -- sometimes there is no positive aesthetic -- and all that remains is an anatomically accurate biological specimen -- not outrageously ugly -- but not very inspirational either.

In reviewing her public statue of JFK, the Boston art critic, Christopher Millis, wrote:

"Isabel McIlvain's 1990 sculpture of our man from yesteryear is a three-dimensional cliché, with a face that has all the self-consciousness of a Life-magazine photo shoot and a body that has no more energy than Farberware. Kennedy appears to be walking, but that's only because one foot is in front of the other. It's the sort of work that makes one wish for more ambitious vandals."


.. and I think that Christopher Miller (myself) has a similar response to some of these views/pieces as well.


I wish I had the opportunity to see the actual pieces some day.

And many thanks to Jason Gillespie for raising this issue -- which he had raised earlier on a sculpture listserv here

18 Comments:

Anonymous A.J.S. said...

I was thrilled to encounter Isabel McIlvain's work online this week, only to be devastated by the realization that the pieces were not the result of the simplest tools: two hands certain and strong in clay, stone, or wax...thank you, Sir, for your views on the present state of figurative sculpture. I echo many of them.

July 17, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

As a former student of Isabel's at Boston University, I can tell you that she does not employ body casting at all. She works directly from the figure or from photographs of the figure and then sculpts using clay and tools. She then casts the sculpture after she has sculpted it but there is absolutely no body casting involved. While cast figures tend to look hollow and dead, Isabel is interested in creating lifelike figures with all of their intricate flaws which cannot be achieved with body casting.

-H.S.

December 26, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

To back up HS's comments, McIllvain does not body cast in fact many of the "life casts" are less than 2 feet tall -- and yes with the level of detail that often includes individually misshapen cuticles. Her work is inspired and frankly quite angry.

January 15, 2007  
Blogger chris miller said...

I feel a bit awkward about hosting this this discussion -- since I don't really care how something is done (only how it looks) -- and since Ms. McIlvain herself could set this matter straight if she wished to. Jason's claim is based only on his observation of the photographed sculpture -- but those who claim first-person experience of her studio wish to remain anonymous.

So I guess this question will just have to be answered,eventually, by others.

It brings to mind, of course, the famous controversy over Rodin's "Age of Bronze" -- and it's very hard, today, for me to imagine that anyone ever thought it was life-cast. But then, as my old pappy used to say, hindsight is always 20-20.

BTW -- I wonder what I.M. is "quite angry" about ? The fact that we all grow old and ugly ?

January 24, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

As a student of Isabel's for 6 years I can confirm she never uses bodycasting, she has stated that in order to reach the level of realism in her work, liberties are taken. In other words they are not "copies of human bodies. Beyond that they stand or sit appr. 20-30 inches tall, I myself have never encoutered a model that short. Her work is without precedent. She will retire at the end of this year, we will lose an excellent educator of figurative sculpure. Robert Bodem

January 27, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was an undergraduate art history student at Washington & Lee University in 1975-1976 and Isabel McIlvain was my teacher in a sculpture studio class. She was an amazing (and demanding) teacher. Her private "studio" was always open and you could watch her work. At the time she had completed the heads of babies, and starting work on the figure of a nude man and pregnant woman. She never used body casts, but worked -- at the time -- from dozens if not hundreds of B&W photos of her subject. I was curious about what ever happened to this gifted artist and today found this web site. I once encountered an example of her work in a group show at the Carnegie Mus. of Art in Pittsburgh (ca. 1980), but otherwise have not seen it exhibited.

April 11, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

As another former student of Isabel, I would like to echo the confirmation that she does not use life-casts, as well as Mr. Bodem's sentiment about losing a motivated, convicted educator after her retirement.

June 08, 2007  
Blogger Mark Heng said...

I was a student of Isabel's at Boston University in 1990. No, she's not a lifecaster. Yes, her sculptures are usually under 2 feet tall. And yes, they are amazing. I've seen similar works with close to the anatomical understanding and detailed realism of Isabel's, but never quite the same feeling that you were standing in front of a real person.

July 02, 2007  
Blogger Isabel McIlvain said...

Well this one is from the artist. Your site is amazing to me. I thank the many who have been so kind in speaking of their pleasure in seeing my little people. I work on with them with great love and tenderness for their humanity. But so many people are willing to post comments and opinion without information. If those who thought them to be body casts would look at my web site (IsabelMcIlvain.com) or google it, they will see one of the sculptures ( a tiny cross legged figure) with a ruler infront of her. She is 9 or 10 inches high. There is another (crouching with her arms around her knees, photographed from the back) with a push pin beside her. She is 12 inches high. I have spent years teaching my students that body casts never look alive. Perhaps the pressure of the plaster presses in the skin. I also think that sculptural figure work, to carry the strong illusion that the forms come from and continue into the inside, as they do in life, must be clarified, as verbal language clarifies thoughts. This may be done with great subtilty but I believe it must be done or the area of form will seem to sit on the surface. Perhaps this could be done on a body-cast but that is not what I have done. I want my figures to elicit a feeling of tenderness in the viewer and believe that their small size (none is over three feet high) enhances that possibility. I also take great personal pleasure in the discovery of the amazing complexity, variety and uniqueness of life, and ourselves as part of it. It does somewhat distress me that the title of this site and the first comments all imply that I do these as body-casts which is not true. Thamk you for reading this. Isabel McIlvain

July 28, 2007  
Blogger Isabel McIlvain said...

Well this one is from the artist. Your site is amazing to me. I thank the many who have been so kind in speaking of their pleasure in seeing my little people. I work on with them with great love and tenderness for their humanity. But so many people are willing to post comments and opinion without information. If those who thought them to be body casts would look at my web site (IsabelMcIlvain.com) or google it, they will see one of the sculptures ( a tiny cross legged figure) with a ruler infront of her. She is 9 or 10 inches high. There is another (crouching with her arms around her knees, photographed from the back) with a push pin beside her. She is 12 inches high. I have spent years teaching my students that body casts never look alive. Perhaps the pressure of the plaster presses in the skin. I also think that sculptural figure work, to carry the strong illusion that the forms come from and continue into the inside, as they do in life, must be clarified, as verbal language clarifies thoughts. This may be done with great subtilty but I believe it must be done or the area of form will seem to sit on the surface. Perhaps this could be done on a body-cast but that is not what I have done. I want my figures to elicit a feeling of tenderness in the viewer and believe that their small size (none is over three feet high) enhances that possibility. I also take great personal pleasure in the discovery of the amazing complexity, variety and uniqueness of life, and ourselves as part of it. It does somewhat distress me that the title of this site and the first comments all imply that I do these as body-casts which is not true. Thamk you for reading this. Isabel McIlvain

July 28, 2007  
Blogger tester said...

A kind soul alerted me to the ongoing dialogue; apologies to the artist and company for any ignorance on my part...

AJS

August 22, 2007  
Blogger chris miller said...

Thankyou, everyone, for setting the record straight.

Perhaps I should should delete this entire post -- but rumors of body casting were considered a compliment to Rodin, weren't they ? -- so I left the post untouched -- except to modify the title with the word "rumor".

(I would have made this change as soon as Isabel placed her comment -- but Blogger never gave me notification of it)

So .. can we finally put this issue behind us ?

And return attention to the real question -- of whether these pieces are good sculpture ?

Hers are some of the first pieces I put up on my web gallery of 21st century figure sculpture -- and I still think they belong there.

August 23, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Isabel McIlvain made a sculpture of me in the late 1970's. She took photos, and later I saw my figure sculpted. It was close to full-size, as I recall. I remember looking at it when it was finished; such an eerie feeling . . . and marveling at the realism of my knees. . .

June 29, 2008  
Anonymous Erik Blome said...

Isabel McIlvain is one of the best figure modelers living today. Chris Miller can go discuss what good sculpture is in a coffee shop somewhere, hopefully we won't have to listen to him talk about his own. I studied with Isabel many years ago and if one suggests that she is using body casts, it is to suggest that one has not looked carefully at her work or at what a body cast is. Isabel's work is in fact great art. I was a graduate student at BU with her. She hates body casts.

January 28, 2009  
Blogger chris miller said...

This is the thread that refuses to die!--- even after Ms McIlvain has been kind enough to set the record straight, herself.

In retrospect -- I wish that some other assertion regarding her work had been made -- and then drawn this much attention.

But -- people are fascinated by whether a realistic sculpture was life-cast or not -- and so interest in this thread continues year after year.

(BTW - Erik will be happy to know that I have no interest in discussing my own work -- at a coffee shop or anywhere else!)

But it is my belief that any attention is good attention -- and am happy to discuss the work of others.

Figure sculpture is very important.

It SHOULD be talked about -- and if nothing else, this thread has demonstrated the great respect that Ms. McIlvain has earned from her students and peers.

January 28, 2009  
Anonymous Scott Glass said...

I was a Studio Art major at Washington & Lee University in the mid-70s during a brief period of amazing renaissance at the art department under the tutelage of sculptor/artists like Isabel McIlvain and I-Hsiung Ju. I saw many of Isabel's sculptures and watched her at work in her studio. Absolutely NO body casting. If you haven't seen her sculptures in the flesh, you need to know that the typical standing figures are less than 18" tall.

May 24, 2010  
Blogger rosyque ray said...

Well, "beauty is in the eye of the beholder", I know what that means from the work of Isabel Mcilvain, because i am the model of her best work. I still have a test cast/ proof (in plaster) of the original of my figure. my statue was between 2-3 feet tall..you see I deserved more clay. She did not body cast me! her work is great. I only have the head; It makes me feel alive at half-size, when I look at it. I was also a model in her classroom for over a 2 years and I learnt much about not only sculpture but art and structure. excellent residual education. Thank you Isabel. I hope you are still doing it.

April 15, 2014  
Blogger Unknown said...

The smaller than life scale of the sculptures was utilized in part to create tenderness, which I believe is effective. I also feel that the reduction in scale also helps the viewer engage with the sculptures as form.
I remember staring at a McIlvain sculpture at Boston University CFA office some time ago and just feeling like I had never seen an arm before the way I saw that well-formed little shoulder captured in time. That was a bronze torso, The flat color helps with the emphasis on the form. There is also an incredible stillness to many of these sculptures that heightens silence in the room and invites slowing down and noticing the very air around you.

April 17, 2014  

Post a Comment

<< Home

<