It started with an apple and a serpent. Then the tempting began.
Eve Disconsolate, the masterpiece by Hiram Powers, America’s best-known neoclassical sculptor now in the collection of the Hudson River Museum, shows a distressed Eve about to be banished from the Garden of Eden. Eve, and other works by the 19th-century artist, inspired contemporary sculptor Lily Cox-Richard to make fresh sculptural forms, elements that she selects, edits, and re-recreates from Powers’ earlier works. Her six sculptures − The Stand (Possessing Powers) − are faithful to the sculptural traditions of Powers’ originals but Cox-Richard’s sculptures contain a striking omission − the figures themselves, figures that broke new ground when Powers’ made them − idealized nudes and noble savages.
Powers carved the original Eve Disconsolate into marble in 1871 and it was gifted the Hudson River Museum in 1951, after standing for years as a garden sculpture in a Tarrytown garden. Always on view at the Museum, it will be joined by The Stand sculptures, completed in 2013, in the Museum’s galleries, May 10 to September 14 in the exhibition Lily Cox-Richard: Possessing Powers.
The Stand sculptures could serve as structural support for the absent marble figures but under Cox-Richard they play an even stronger role as narrative support to the stories Powers tells through his two “Eves” − Eve Tempted (modeled 1839-42) and Eve Disconsolate (modeled 1855-1861); The Greek Slave (modeled 1841-43); California (modeled 1850–55); Fisher Boy (modeled 1841-44), and The Last of the Tribes (modeled 1867-72).
Cox-Richard, intrigued by the contact between the figure and its base, looks to the base for the story. “My sculpture grapples with charging empty spaces, revealing invisible systems, and reaffirming exhausted objects,” she said. In The Stand’s Eve, as in the original by Powers’, a serpent encircles a tree trunk, the base on which Eve’s foot is poised. Leafy branches barely cloak the snake’s prideful gloating over its successful and, as it was to prove, tragic tempting of the Mother of Mankind. The story, though, belongs to both the tempted and the tempter, seen from two different vantages by two different artists, employing differing processes. Powers, always concerned with detail in his sculpture, had a real rattlesnake sent from America to his Florence studio as a model. Cox-Richard recreating the snake today, reproduces its scales by pressing fishnet stockings into wet plaster. “I look for new materials and techniques suited to the project at hand, even as it is grounded in an historical work,” she said.
Cox-Richard, like many artists today seeks direction for America’s sculpture and she looks back to its 19th-century beginnings, a high point for the United States and its newly flourishing national identity. She explores, too, that time’s artistic product and its moral and social messages, and comes up with questions about gender stereotypes and the oversimplified allegories from the nation’s history. In The Last of the Tribes a tree trunk once again enables Cox-Richard to break a Powers’ sculpture into its elements. A Native American woman runs from civilization, her skirt brushing across the trunk of a tree. The stump/skirt is the site of action that charges the sculpture but Cox-Richard cannot tease the figure and its support apart. Instead, in her recreation the woman’s skirt rests on and emerges from the stump, stressing the moment of the connection, the only moment that shows the figure moving. Cox Richard: “Reduced to their structural supports, my carved plaster sculptures are both originals and copies, homage and critique, familiar and strange, created in an attempt to see what new content might be revealed when the figure is removed, and how this work can be transformed when it is reimagined through a contemporary sculpture practice.”
The exhibition, The Stand, also includes Cox-Richard’s cast plaster objects drawn from the Powers’ sculptures – the manacles from the Greek Slave, the shell from Fisher Boy, among them and photographs of the hand, from her exhibition and small documentary book The Thicket. Powers was deeply interested in the form of the hand and sculpted many for clients as well as those for his figures. He held Swedenborgian religious beliefs that taught that touch was crucial to both motherly and conjugal love.
Hiram Powers (1805-1873), often called the Father of American Sculpture, lived in Florence close to Italy’s good marble and craftsmen as did other American sculptors at that time. His technique, though, distinguished him from his contemporaries – his surfaces are matte and porous, not highly polished, which Cox Richard’s plaster models echo.
Lily Cox-Richard has exhibited at Hirschl & Adler Galleries in New York, Vox Populi in Philadelphia, the Poor Farm in Manawa, Wisconsin, and Kompact Living Space in Berlin. Among the fellowships she has been awarded are a Smithsonian Artist Research Fellowship, a postdoctoral fellowship in the University of Michigan's Society of Fellows, and residencies at the CORE Program at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston. While a student at Houston, she became familiar with Powers’ The Last of the Tribes and began The Stand. Her attention to process moved her to expand her education learning to carve stone in a quarry near Salzburg Austria. “It ended up not being about learning to carve marble, but more about trying to figure out what a stone carver is thinking about.”
Organized by the Hudson River Museum in cooperation with the artist and Hirschl & Adler Galleries, 2014