‘It really comes down to a whole-hearted commitment to the image,” says American sculptor Robert Taplin, who on Saturday, January 12, will talk about his art and sculptures that dominate Grounds For Sculpture’s Museum Building and appear in the recently created park area called the Meadow
On view until Sunday, April 14, Taplin’s three-part exhibition, “Heaven, Hell, and the History of Punch,” adds fire to the currently running “Mythos” exhibition but stands powerfully on its own.
Speaking from his studio in New Haven, Connecticut, the artist talks about his use of imagery, his training, and how literature informs his work.
“It’s a completely contrarian point of view,” says Taplin of his works that deviate from the contemporary use of irony and subjectivity. “A lot of contemporary work that uses representation treats the image as some sort of lie. Not to be trusted. That includes images of Hollywood and advertisements. One could call it ‘iconic-phobic.’”
While the sculptor understands that artistic impulse, especially since he feels that there’s a great deal of imagery designed to be manipulative, he says, “But there’s an older tradition that has different goals and aspirations.” It’s a tradition that he has followed since the 1970s.
“I regard my work as highly political in its own way, much more than you see in the art world. But what most passes in the art world is identity art, which has some legitimacy. What passes for political art is liberal preaching to the choir,” says Taplin, whose work has been shown at the National Academy of Design in New York, DeCordova Museum in Massachustts, and the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum in Connecticut.
Part of Taplin’s contrarian attitude and artistic vision comes from his decision to develop as an artist outside of art schools, though he did take art classes in high school. “I didn’t go to the art school. It was combination of fear and perverse bullish feeling that I knew what I was doing,” he says. He adds that the era when he would have attended (1970s) was one influenced by conceptual and minimal art and that “I think I would have had trouble. I have contemporaries who did survive art school, but most of the people that I respect that did not go into it.”
Instead Taplin attended Pomona College in California. There he participated in theater and created stage designs, which now inform his sculptures. He also studied the humanities, receiving a B.A. in Medieval Studies in 1973. “I had more of a literature and history background, but I continued art on my time. When I got out of college, I had an art studio of my own.”
It was in a literature class that he found a subject that continues to inspire, the writings of the medieval poet, author of the “Divine Comedy,” and fellow outsider artist, Dante Alighieri (whose exile from his native Florence allowed the poet see his time and art more clearly). “I studied Dante in college and got pretty obsessed. I wanted to learn Italian to read him, so I went to Italy for a while to learn. It was a big deal for me, and it lay dormant for a while,” Taplin says.
In a GFS grouping of sculptures, called “Everything Imagined is Real (After Dante),” there are nine pieces related to the “Inferno” section of Dante’s three-part epic journey to salvation (the other two sections are “Purgatorio” and “Paradiso”). “I worked with the idea for quite awhile, six months reading and thinking about it. I did this thing where I pulled nine quotes out the first verses and tried to reconstruct a new sense of the story around that,” he says.
Using miniature resin figures, Taplin focuses only on mortals in contemporary garb and allows them to dramatically interact with one another on various types of theatrical stages, reflecting the sculptor’s various interests and training. It also emphasizes the human situation.
In addition to using quotes from Dante, Taplin attempts to recreate the way the poet focuses the eyes of the readers as they follow the poet through his journey from Hell to Heaven. “Dante is in the yellow T-shirt, but the rest are dead or figments of his imagination. Everybody is dead but him. And they’re saying, ‘What the hell are you doing here? This is for dead people, get out of here.’ As you proceed down into hell with Dante, sometimes you see him in the poem, but sometimes you see things as he sees it. So I followed that for the sculptures. Sometimes you see him in them, and sometimes you just see what he sees.”
While it is natural to assume that Taplin puts himself into Dante situations, the fourth station, “I Saw the Master (Limbo),” makes the direct link. In the poem, the writer sees the Greek epic poet Homer. In the sculpture, the sitting figure sees the sculptor David Smith, a welder turned major sculptor. “I admire him. When all is said and done, David Smith was the great mid-century American sculptor.”
This is not the first time that Taplin used Dante’s writings, which he calls “a mother-load of ideas.” He created a project in 1978 called “Nine Views of New Haven.” That project consisted of dioramas placed around the city. In order to view the art, however, the viewer had to look through peepholes. Inside viewers discovered poems and images inspired by Dante’s earliest work, “La Vita Nova” (The New Life), consisting of Dante’s love poems to his ideal woman and muse, Beatrice (to whom Dante never spoke).
“That was in the era of street art and we considered it guerrilla art, but I got involved and went the official route and got permission,” Taplin says. “We just walked into the office and told the guy at the arts council what we wanted to do and he said, ‘Sure. What the hell.’ It was only up for a month, but it was big deal and was in the New York Times.” The project was also recreated as a temporary public art project in New York City’s Union Square subway stop.
His studies in theater and literature also serve as a catalyst for another grouping on display at GFS: a series based on the figure of Punch. “Punch goes back to the Punch and Judy shows. Originally Punchinello in Italian, he is a little guy in the puppet show. There was a show in the Metropolitan Museum of Art that had drawings by Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo. He did a whole series on Punchinello and created a whole society of Punchinellos. This was around the turn of the century in the 1800s. The works were Venetian and the figures had masks — which I was interested in. The figures were inserted into the life of the era. I just took that and said, ‘I could do that. I could take Punch and drive him into the contemporary world.’ Punch’s both envied and despised because he’s not interested in social restrictions.”
Taplin’s “The History of Punch” consists of 13 small theater-like scenes in the indoor gallery and two large figures in the Meadow. The interior Punches are small white resin figures. The two outside works are larger than life restatements of two in the museum. One is made of milled foam and reinforced gypsum, the other of fiberglass, aluminum, and internal lighting (allowing the figure to glow at night).
Despite size and medium, the pieces depict various moments of this ancient trickster and outsider in contemporary situations and show his near manic-depressive swings of emotion. In “Punch Makes Love to the Duchess,” the character abandons himself to lust, yet in “Punch Makes a Public Confession,” the figure seems suspiciously contrite.
The two outdoor works seem to paraphrase the character’s history. In “The Young Punch Goes Shopping with his Mother,” the character grins with reptilian satisfaction. Then they eye moves to find “Punch is Homeless,” the still grinning character now pushes his few belongings in a shopping cart.
Taplin’s third sculptural is “The Five Outer Planets.” Just as the actual celestial objects do, these planets float overhead. But rather than being the expected ball-like shape, these planets appear as giant naked middle-aged men for whom the planets are named and whose attributes are linked to myth. As Taplin notes, “The five figures form a family group (grandfather, father, three sons) in which the physical characteristics of the actual planets are crossbred with the brutal, mythological narrative implied by their names.” For example Saturn ate his children and Uranus subjected his mate and imprisoned their children (who rose up and castrated the god).
Each human planet features a twin image. One is illuminated, the other dark, suggesting aspects of the human consciousness and drives. The approach also connects with Taplin’s earlier works called “Double Portraits.” Those works pair two different treatments of the same subject in the same position. One of the pair may be dressed, while the other is naked. One may be a miniature figure, while the other is an oversized head. “I’ve been doing this for a very long time,” says Taplin about the approach.
It is also something that Taplin notes about making art, which he has been doing before he can recall. “There was a drainage creek that my mother used to say that I would take the clay and shape. She was great. I grew up in Cleveland and we did what little kids do, and we go to the Cleveland Museum and try to draw the armor.”
There were other family influences. One is sitting with his stay-at-home mother (his father was a lawyer) and looking at and discussing images in a book of world art. The other was from his insurance executive grandfather who was a serious amateur painter and collector who owned several Edward Hopper paintings that intrigued the younger artist.
That influence also seems to have touched Taplin’s older brother, Jonathan, Princeton ’69 and past tour manager for Bob Dylan and The Band, producer of several films (including Martin Scorsese’s first feature, “Mean Streets”), and professor at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California.
Family and art are still very much a part of the sculptor’s life. He’s been married since 1976 to Nan, a retired teacher noted in Connecticut for her work with early intervention for children with special needs. They moved to New Haven when Nan was offered a position to teach at Benhaven, a school for students with autism (she is currently writing a book on the disorder). They have two children in their early 30s.
And while Taplin has been creating art for a long time, he is still, like his subjects, unsettled. “The whole thing with figurative sculpture is that there is dialogue between a mimetic approach (looks like a person) and an expressive approach (when you don’t worry about it so much). My work bounces off between those poles,” he says.
Heaven, Hell, and the History of Punch, Grounds For Sculpture, 18 Fairgrounds Road, Hamilton. Robert Taplin speaks on Saturday, January 12, 1 p.m., free with admission. Continues to April 14. $8 to $12. 609-586-0616 or www.groundsforsculpture.org.