Essay

THE REAL THING

Marc Sijan is following the primal compulsion of people to create images that reflect a respectful perspective on themselves, a practice that began some 17 thousand years ago. Humans started portraying their own image on the walls of caves in northern Spain, resulting in some of the most remarkable art ever conceived. Even Picasso was impressed, observing that this was the beginning of the development of recreating the figure, although on flat two-dimensional surfaces. These instincts continued to develop over thousands of years, until the skills of drawing and painting were finally harnessed and put down on woven material or Pompeian plaster walls. But it was a true adventurer who took up the challenge of translating the human form into recognizable, three-dimensional context.

Thin, figure-like sculptures were likely first fashioned out of tree branches tied together with twine and mud. Eventually, these somewhat recognizable forms were probably produced from rough timber as totems and decorative architectural details. The final designs were necessarily abstract, as sharp, stone-cut geometric lines had to be a substitute for the more nuanced features and shapes that primitive artisans wanted to invoke but did not have the tools or the experience and maturity to create something moderately realistic. As societies became more advanced and the craft movement went beyond utilitarian objects, the realization of recreating an artificial human form finally took place. Thousands of dusty figures have been found in Egyptian caves, offering further evidence that man has had an intuitive and spiritual motivation to duplicate objective presentations of himself for thousands of years. Later, the Greeks and Romans took advantage of past experiments and refined their abilities to create extraordinary work often chiseled from marble blocks and polished to perfection.

Modern artists who studied these great leaps forward in constructing objects that were ever more sophisticated than their predecessors began to search beyond acceptable practices in bronze and stone through high levels of ingenious improvement that would bring a super-rich realism imagery to mainstream contemporary art. A handful of sculptors took up this seemingly impossible task by exploring the advantages of new materials that were far from the original lump of clay described in biblical terms to create the first doppelganger. These pioneers in the late 60s discovered a new synthetic material that could be cast directly from the figure to produce a genuine illusion of body and soul, complete with prosthetic eyes and dressed totally in ordinary clothes. Hyperrealism came into vogue in the 70s with curious works by Duane Hanson, whose simulations of everyday people were in a class of their own. John De Andrea took the process one step further by reproducing figures in their natural state without the advantage of covering the body with clothing. Now, sculptor Marc Sijan, who has been pursuing this discipline for over forty years and often shared production and finishing techniques in Hanson’s studio, is arguably one of the most successful and innovative artists working in America today.

His work, which is steeped in a well-conceived multitasking foundation that is cast and intricately painted with multiple layers of flesh-colored paint, has brought hyper-illusion as another aesthetic component into modern figurative sculpture that’s celebrated in numerous museum and gallery exhibitions around the world. The challenging variety of technical steps that have been painstakingly developed during the artist’s illustrious career permanently positions Marc Sijan not only as a visionary but as a technical wizard who keeps his studio trade secrets to himself. As the artist is arguably at the very height of his career, having mastered one of the most technical difficult casting techniques imaginable for sculpture, Mr. Sijan is free to explore comfortably the limitless dimensions of his subject matter. This artist is the consummate observer of life in the most challenging of realist traditions. The complete opposite of man’s failed tries at recreating the human image no matter how primitive, Sijan’s work succeeds. The most magical three-dimensional profiles ever achieved if placed retroactively in the aforementioned caves of northern Spain would no doubt have those early artists running in the opposite direction without ever looking back.

A natural byproduct of Sijan’s realistic sculpture not surprisingly is the intense curiosity generated by the viewing public. As an internationally renowned American hyperrealist artist with numerous one-man museum exhibitions, he continues to set attendance records whenever he exhibits. His most recent international show in Dubai, to an audience not accustomed to his work, drew huge crowds — including world leaders. Critics have observed of this unique sculpture “All that’s missing is the pulse,” and in the words of director Lou Zona of the Butler Institute of American Art, Marc Sijan “truly breathes realism into his sculptures.” Accolades aside, ultimately it is the remarkable human response to Marc Sijan’s sculptures that persuades. Almost every member of the public expresses wonder and appreciation with a subject so familiar it seems both impossible to reproduce and amazing to consider. Sijan continues to take us on this fascinating journey of recognizable human figures that turn the ordinary into the extraordinary.

–Bruce Helander is an artist and curator who also contributes to The New Yorker magazine and ARTnews.
He is a White House Fellow of the National Endowment for the Arts, and arts writer for the Huffington Post.