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MONUMENTAL: Comparative Figurative Sculpture

While celebrating Martin Margulies’s major gift of two sculptural installations to the permanent collection of the Johnson Museum, MONUMENTAL also aims to show that figurative sculpture has returned to center stage in the international contemporary art world. Folkert de Jong (Dutch, born 1972) and Will Ryman (American, born 1969) belong to a group of international artists born in the 1960s and ’70s whose works extend and reinvent the language of figurative sculpture for the twenty-first century. Harking back to traditional sculpture of the human figure, their works—neither literal portraits nor traditional monuments—push the expressive potential of sculptural forms and materials. Favoring assemblage over the readymade, construction of form over casting from life, and physicality and texture over refinement of finish, De Jong and Ryman’s sculptures are both art-historically informed and expressively direct.

De Jong is best known for his theatrical, narrative installations. His life-sized sculptures, presented in tableau-like arrangements, take on the themes of war, greed, violence, and politics. In Pick Nick he refers to one of America’s favorite pastimes, barbequing, connecting it in a grotesque way to death, destruction, and terrorism. The Styrofoam and polyurethane that De Jong uses are petroleum-based products and are some of the most nonrecyclable materials in existence. Referring in this way to oil-based economies, the vast power of petrochemical industries, and conflicts between nations over oil, De Jong makes us consider our own complicity in a world full of inequality and violence.

Ryman’s works are also driven by narrative, but his stories are drawn from the contemporary urban landscape. With a background in theater, Ryman is primarily interested in the expression of emotion, which he attempts to transform into a three-dimensional presentation by using distortions and absurd proportions. The quality of his ordinary settings—the familiar sight of a hot dog stand in this installation—draws us in and gets us involved with characters that we otherwise might not interact with. By depicting the mundane aspects of everyday life, Ryman helps us recognize a common humanity.

Andrea Inselmann
Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art