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The Preservation of Form: Kath Girdler Engler

August 15 - November 1, 2008


I favor the textures and broken forms of ancient sculptures lifted from an archaeological dig, bringing with them the sedimentation of centuries. I also collect the ephemera and fragments of our own recent past to enrich and illustrate the mystery of each sculpture.
-- Kath Girdler Engler


(above: Growth, paper pulp, found objects, crystal, pigment, gesso, antique paper and rocks)

As a student, Kath Girdler Engler spent time in the museums of Italy and France, inspired by the partial fragments she viewed. It was with those images in mind that Engler first began construction of her life-size figures, some twenty years ago. An exhibit of twelve figures entitled The Preservation of Form is currently on display at the Parthenon Museum in Nashville, Tennessee, August 15 - November 1, 2008.

Engler's sculptual work emphasizes both the tactile and elegant nature of the human form. Several are reminiscent of the Parthenon marbles, fragments of sculptures which were toppled off the temple in the explosion of 1687. Displaying Engler's fragments in the Nashville Parthenon is a perfect fit since this museum is a replica of the 5th century B.C.E. temple which stood in Athens, Greece. In the level above the gallery are plaster casts of the original Parthenon marbles.

Engler employs an unusual basic material: paper pulp. She shreds newspaper and mixes it with glue, water and other substances that make the dried material both rigid and archival. Engler describes her sculptures as "...a paper pulp mixture to encrust figurative forms with rocks, vine, bone, barnacles and man made items that have been aged and altered by sun, wind and water." They are also decorated with imprints, symbols, and natural objects to create a lovely and intricate visual image. These objects and shapes are imbedded through her laborious process of building up layer upon layer of sheets of paper and pulp. Often she scorches and distresses the sculptures or adds layers of gesso or pigment.

Her influences are both ancient and distant. The most ancient of these is Cycladic art, a distinct sculptural form that emerged in islands off the southeast coast of Greece between 3000 and 2000 B.C.E. A simple style, it focused on the barest of lines, minimal forms that indicate only a nose, breasts and arms. Engler's interest in Cycladic sculpture is apparent in her choice of uncomplicated facial lines merging into an unadorned torso and limbs that abruptly end. Her sculptures take their cast forms from antique mannequins, so Engler combines this early Greek simplification with nineteenth century delicacy to create an uncommon visual synthesis.


(above: Hermes with Infant Dionysus)

In at least three sculptures Engler's reference is the Greek god Dionysus. His mother was a mortal named Semele and his father was Zeus. Semele was killed by one of Zeus' thunderbolts, and her child was thrown (born) out of her womb into Zeus' thigh. There he remained until his second birth (Rebirth of Dionysus). Following this birth, the infant Dionysus was given to Hermes, the messenger god, to care for: Hermes with Infant Dionysus. Dionysus was refered to as the Child of the Double Doors, because of his birth from both Semele and Zeus. Engler references Dionysus often by title and more subtly, since he was the god of wine, by her consistent use of grapevine as a material.


(above: Child of the Double Doors (right) Rebirth of Dionysus (left))

Another large work, Sons of Niobe, captures a single moment in Greek mythology. In this story, the Queen of Thebes had six daughters and six sons. She bragged arrogantly about her family to Leto, Apollo and Artemis. It was not acceptable behavior for a mortal to boast to the gods and their wrath was swift. Apollo immediately went to earth and killed the six sons as they practiced athletics. The last son begged not to be killed but it was too late-the arrow had already left Apollo's bow to strike the last two young men simultaneously as they wrestled. Engler's sculpture, Sons of Niobe, depicts the sons intertwined just before their deaths. The two figures are connected in their pose and loosely linked with vine. Small smooth rocks mark each contact point of the two figures.


(above: Sons of Niobe)

Engler's most distant influences are from her family homeland of New Zealand. For example, the paua shell comes from a mollusk indigenous to New Zealand, where this iridescent shell is often used in jewelry creation. Engler places these shimmering shells in the arm sockets and genital areas of Woman of the Fernz I and II. The artists among the native people of New Zealand created traditional bas-relief carvings based on natural shapes (like spirals and coils) which Engler replicates in many sculptures. Sometimes they decorate the surface; at other times they physically join figures.


(above: Woman of the Fernz I, Woman of the Fernz II )

Kath Girdler Engler's sculptures are appealing both in physical form and through her interpretation of mythical stories. They are the fragments of ancient forms combined with Engler's own understanding of the human body. Her confidence with the overall form allows her to be playful with the details as she imbeds materials that fit the negative shapes in her sculptures. Paper pulp is an unusual medium and its durable nature is the perfect material to distress in imitation of age. But Engler is always able to emphasize the large contour lines that elegantly wrap around surprise materials in crevices and joints of her sculptures.

-- Susan Shockley, Curator, The Parthenon

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