Carol Setterlund’s Figural Sculptures

Donald Kuspit, Professor of Art History and Philosophy


WIDOW GOODHEART STUDIES THE MOONThe totemic uprightness of Carol Setterlund’s primordial figures, along with their emphatic, massive heads—-much more massive, developed, than their slender, sometimes token bodies—-has been much noted, but what strikes me about the heads is their wide open eyes, staring into space, as though seeing it for the first time. It is the dawn of consciousness that is being depicted, and what human beings first become conscious of, when they become truly conscious, is the space they stand in and that separates them from other human beings. Setterlund’s figures are about the self-consciousness that emerges with this consciousness of isolation in space, and the urge to overcome it through a glance at the other—-at the spectator, also isolated in space. Setterlund’s figures are stuck in separateness, one might say, in the separateness of their individual existence, but their eyes tend to meet those of the spectator, as though to draw his or her reflective glance into their own, at once stern and detached, yet oddly empathic, as though mutual contemplation was enough to bind their beings, overcoming their emotional incompatibility.

Let’s go one step further: Setterlund’s figures have an archaic grandeur to them, indeed, the same regal eloquence as Etruscan tomb figures. It is as though the ancient sculptor caught their first vital, knowing consciousness, preserving it forever in the freshness of an artistic memory. I am suggesting that Setterlund’s figures are also memorial sculptures: their wood has been bleached by death, giving it the chalky pallor of the underworld. Setterlund’s figures are in effect hadean ghosts—noble spirits that haunt the unconscious, signaling our own inevitable material death and higher, reflective nature, which may endure in collective memory. Thus in work after work—Point of Departure, Ajax the Great, Deja Vu, Monadnock, La Primavera, Mysterium—to mention only a few—the head is a bust, separate from the body, which is an altar-like pedestal (a construction reminiscent of Brancusi, as has been noted.) It is aloof and independent, as though transcending destiny, which the material body cannot avoid, as it’s attenuated state suggests.

AJAX THE GREATSetterlund is a wood-carver, but the claylike surface of her figures makes them seem modeled. She is a primitivist with a sophisticated awareness of modernism. The strength of her figures is tempered by the intimacy of their texture, making them all the more dramatically expressive and “touching.” They are symbolic abstractions that seem profoundly realistic. Setterlund’s figures are supposedly full of grief—depression and resignation, it has been said, involving loss and abandonment—but there is a kind of gaiety in Pirouette and Widow Goodheart Studies the Moon. There is even comic irony, as the garishly bright red lips in the otherwise white face suggests. Ajax the Great has similar red lips, suggesting the tragicomic character—-peculiar foolishness—-of his greatness. (Bulfinch writes that he was “gigantic in size and of great courage, but dull of intellect”—a dubious hero.)

The red has faded from the lips of Setterlund’s other figures, confirming their inner silence, which may be the substance of their stubborn presence. Their inner defiance offsets their outer disturbing quality. In a similar manner, the ghostly whiteness that occurs at times, suggesting absence, is at odds with their solidity, signaling their indisputable presence. Setterlund’s figures thus embody existential trauma and triumph over it, as her masterful heads, with the unflinching gaze, suggest.

Donald Kuspit

Professor of Art History and Philosophy

State University of New York

Stony Brook