Gillian Jagger at Phyllis Kind Gallery

Gillian Jagger, The White Doe and Twins (2002), plaster, wire and mixed media; courtesy Phyllis Kind Gallery

* * *

The sculpture of Gillian Jagger, currently the subject of a disquieting exhibition at the Phyllis Kind Gallery, puts me in mind of some wise advice I once received about sausage: Best not to ask how it’s made.

Until now, what little I knew about Ms. Jagger’s work I’d gleaned from gallery listings: brief descriptions of how “roadkill” is her inspiration and medium. Having suffered in recent years a plague of art incorporating dead fauna, I was in no rush to learn more. (The best place to go for that kind of thing is the American Museum of Natural History, where the specimens on display are offered in the name of science, not art.) And yet, having found myself in Soho recently on an errand, I decided it was my critical duty to pop into Kind and see the work. I was shocked–but not because it offended my not-so-delicate sensibilities. What’s shocking about Ms. Jagger’s sculptures is that they actually function–and succeed–as art. No Damien Hirst–like huckster, Ms. Jagger is a sculptor of singular, though not unproblematic, gifts.

Roadkill is not, literally speaking, Ms. Jagger’s medium. Her wraith-like effigies are plaster casts of horses and deer found dead on or near the artist’s farm in Kerhonkson, N.Y. Two of the three pieces are fractured “shells” of animals suspended by wires that have been attached to architectural armatures; the other, The Pregnant Deer (2000), is a free-standing piece. All of these partake of the theater: offset with dramatic lighting, they’re like marionettes in an otherworldly ballet.

The detachment Ms. Jagger employs when casting her subjects must be formidable–it’s not every artist who, confronted with the corpse of her favorite horse, mixes up a batch of plaster. I don’t mean to imply that this detachment is a form of callousness. Ms. Jagger’s art is gentle and loving, an homage to life rather than its embodiment. As such, it’s stringent in its means and romantic in effect. Ms. Jagger balances these extremes adroitly, so that one’s quibbles about the bathetic are set aside. What can’t be set aside is the clumsiness of the installation: The floor lamps that illuminate the tableaus are an obstacle to both the eye and foot. Ms. Jagger needs to rethink her presentation. All the same, the show is an unlikely and unexpected triumph.

© 2002 Mario Naves

Originally published in the July 1, 2002 edition of The New York Observer.

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