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Frederick News Post

THE NEXT 72 HOURS: COVER STORY

Sculpting a fine line beautiful, yet grotesque
 

Published on September 8, 2005

By Dickson Mercer
News-Post Staff

 

Walking across the Hood College campus to meet Aaron Brophy, I pass "Fragmented Man" resting in the grass outside Tatem Arts Center. With the finer details veiled by darkness, the sculpture emits a dim glow; it looks almost like a corpse, fractured into three parts, separated at the torso and just below the shoulder.

A humid evening, 29-year-old Brophy -- dressed in blue jeans and a T-shirt stained with sweat -- unloads a few of his life-size figurative sculptures into Hodson Gallery from the back of his jeep, pulled up alongside the building.

"Most people have this image of the sculptor in his studio smoking a cigar," he says. "Showing takes a lot of labor. People see me after a couple glasses of wine with cheese and crackers, when in the week leading up to it I spend most of my time with a hand-truck."

More than a decade of Brophy's work is scattered throughout the gallery, including "Winged Torso," which combines wood from a creekbed in Wyoming, fused with clay.

"My work runs a fine line of contradiction," he says, "between something that's beautiful yet somehow grotesque."

Expressing the temporal nature of existence, his sculptures "rest between reality and myth, between heroism and cowardice, between wholeness and disintegration."

But with Brophy, as I quickly discover, the mystery lies less in the product than within the artist himself. Assuming art mirrors its creator, I expect a dark personality, an artist wading a thick muck of existential dilemmas -- someone less balanced and definitely not as mellow.

When visiting China in 2002, as a visiting lecturer, students "understood pictures more than my words," he said. From the objects they assumed I was very sad. They asked if all I do is just mope around, when I'd say I'm borderline between goofy and serious with a sardonic wit."

Complicating the issue, Brophy's perception of his work frequently diverges from its viewers. Where they assign human qualities, he sees an object. Where they see frailty, he sees strength.

And in discussing his work, he tends to be evasive. "If I talk about it too much, people won't be able to perceive it on their own."

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Growing up in rural New Hope, Pa., Brophy spent his early years climbing trees and building forts.

His parents raised him Quaker. Church services were held in silence. "There was no pastor, priest or intermediary," he explains. "The idea was to 'mind the light'," which left him "deeply influenced by pacifism and quietness."

By age 5, his aunt, a ceramic artist, introduced him to clay. Observing the way she worked the pottery wheel, Brophy was basically a functional potter before he learned to draw. "It wasn't until art school that I realized there was a lot more out there," he says.

At 14, Brophy, upon ruling out a career in the NBA, knew he wanted to be an artist. Initially, "I thought I'd sell pottery," he said, until studying world-renowned sculptors like Auguste Rodin and Alberto Giacometti "gave me a sense of what's possible."

"Fragmented Man," Brophy's first creation, began life-size until it exploded in a kiln at Alfred University. Piecing it back together, he enjoyed the composition, and for the first time, embraced the medium of construction and deconstruction.

As a 19-year-old, he visited Italy, spent a month backpacking through Europe, and tried to visit as many museums as possible. In Rome's Vatican Museum, he encountered the "Belvedere Torso," leaving him captivated by time-scarred, ancient figurative sculpture.

"I got caught up in Michelangelo, Bernini, and French neo-classicism," then as Fullbright Scholar his travels to the Island of Cyprus, throughout the Middle East and Mediterranean introduced him to new aesthetics -- the golden icons of Greek Orthodox churches and ancient Egyptian, Roman, and Greek sculpture.

At the archaeological museum in Athens, he was struck by the means used to preserve sculptures, including glue and metal bars. Standing in front of the Collossi of Memnon, along the Nile River, "I was totally in awe to see how they lived through things like sandstorms and rain."

After the 10-month sojourn, Brophy arrived in the Washington, D.C., area, where he has remained the last six years. In 2000, he joined the art faculty at Landon School in Bethesda where he presently oversees the ceramic art program. For the past two years, he has also been an adjunct professor of ceramic art at Montgomery College in Rockville.

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Incongruous: Lacking harmony, incompatible.

Throughout the interview, Brophy uses the word repeatedly to describe his work and personality.

He uses it to describe his penchant for hip hop -- Notorious BIG, Run-DMC, Tupac Shakur -- which he listens to in the studio. "There's the idea of fragmentation and audio collage in hip hop, assemblage, fragmentation, deconstruction, all of it comes out in hip hop."

He uses it to describe "Idol," a golden female leg -- partly smooth, partly warped -- which combines plastic (artificial) and wood (natural).

He uses it describe the railroad spike heated then driven through the foot, a cast mold in plaster, of "Unfinished Man," perched on a wooden pedestal claimed from a boatyard in Baltimore. Though it appears weathered or decomposed, the sculpture -- made from clay, wood from Rock Creek Park, bronze, fiberglass and epoxy -- possesses a natural anatomy. It only lacks arms.

"I thought about adding arms, but thought it was done," he said, of a process which took six years.

The face comes from a memory, he says, a personal idea. The hollowed eyes -- piercing yet vacant -- serve as an entry point.

In "Unfinished Man," "there's more of a narrative structure," Brophy said, in terms of capturing the human condition.

But more recent work like "Repose," with the absence of a human form, is less suggestive. Dumping a slop bucket of clay across a long table, Brophy pressed found pieces and parts into the wet substance then let it dry, a process which takes weeks and results in cracks. While some people try to control the fragmentations, he allows nature to run its course. "Clay can do beautiful things on its own," he said.

Displayed outside the Tatem Center, "the landscape is absorbing the form," Brophy says, and lately, he seems enraptured by his work's exterior surroundings, seen in "Gilded Torsos" or "Triptych," which are cut and melted into truncated figures from plastic mannequins.

"They're more ethereal," he says. Hung from the ceiling, the transparent torsos slowly rotate, placing infinite shadows upon the wall. "I'm starting to think of light as material," he adds.

Made about two years ago, the viewer witnesses his work unconsciously evolve, not in a straight or transcendent path, but in his willingness to absorb new techniques and ideas. "It's a delicate process; I don't think I've grasped the power of this yet," he said, referring to "Triptych."

But again, he'd rather leave it up the viewer. "I'm interested in creating a dialogue," he said. "Giving people an opportunity to respond in their own way."

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Brophy will exhibit his life-sized figurative sculptures in a one-man-show in the Hodson Gallery, Tatem Art Center at Hood College in Frederick from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. through Oct.1.