The celebrated British sculptor Nicola Hicks (bn. 1960) has, in recent years, fallen in love with Aesop and his fables all over again. "Aesop is one of my heroes from deep history," she explained on a recent tour of her new exhibition at the Yale Center for British Art in New Haven.
Though historians debate whether Aesop was real, the disarmingly witty Hicks waves aside such notions, saying. "I am much more interested in a good story than the truth, so I will imagine he's a real man." Indeed, her brown plaster portrait of the Greek slave who allegedly compiled his perceptive fables is all the proof anyone needs to make a connection with Aesop.
Nearby, a blindingly white plaster and straw sculpture of a jaunty donkey, entitled "Who was I Kidding," is her rendition of Aesop's fable about the donkey and the lion skin. "He borrows a lion's skin and parades around and it suddenly slips and he is revealed to be an ass," she summarizes with a laugh. To Hicks, there is something touchingly human about the tale, and her resultant piece possesses a melancholy truthfulness. The globs of white paint are, she says, meant to "reference porcelain," the work having been inspired by "feeling resentful of the banking industry." In her bitterness over some banking hassle, Hicks was determined to "make my own series of bankers out of porcelain."
Whether intended or not, "Who was I Kidding" also echoes the centerpiece of the British art center's permanent collection, George Stubbs' 1762 painting "A Lion Attacking a Horse." But it echoes this giant and frightening work in a way that pulls the lion's skin, so to speak, off her own artistic vision. She sculpts animals, yes, but she is really aiming at revealing that "ass-ness" of all human beings — or, rather, their essence — in a bemused but deeply penetrating way.
Hicks' sculptures, center director Amy Meyers says, "are in conversation with other works here and create a dramatic intervention in our spaces." Working with sculpture curator Martina Droth, Hicks combed the collection to choose other works to exhibit alongside her sculptures that would "resonate." Near "Who was I Kidding," for example, she included Stubbs' "Brown and White Norfolk or Water Spaniel" and Edwin Landseer's portrait of a lion tamer. "Both are faintly ridiculous but exquisite works," she explains.
Hicks is equally unpretentious about her methods, saying, "I use whatever is at hand, clay, plaster, hay, straw. Some of the sculptures are fragile and have to be cased in bronze to survive. I'm interested in anything with fur and skin. I use animal parts and animal heads and mostly earth colors like black, white and brown. When a piece is finished, it's finished."
Across from her Aesop on the fourth-floor gallery are a series of three animal heads that Hicks calls "portraits." The bronze "Limbic Champion" (2003) is a lonely minotaur with the aura of an old man. She explains, "The limbic or bottom part of the brain is one we share with lizards, snakes and rats, that part that gets you home after too many drinks, the part that protects you from harm. It seemed such a burden to carry around all that man-ness, to learn how to manage that physical power in such a delicate world."
The black bronze "His Price is Everything" (2011) was inspired by a Ted Hughes poem. "He wrote about a bear that had the power of a mountain and who has no stopping point, a vaguely sociopathic power figure." And "Brave" (2012) is a portrait of her son. "As a young man he was stepping into this world, first with small tentative steps, then with long steps away from me. I call him a brave because I think you have to be brave in this terrifying world."
Similarly, her work "Foal" (2010), in the center's lobby, is half horse/half man. "I like to imagine a boy becoming a man, all the gawky awkwardness of both states of being," she said.
Arguably, the most powerful work in the show is "Black" (2008), a standing bronze that was inspired by Winston Churchill's black dog of despair that he said followed him around. "Dog?!" Hicks says incredulously. "That's not big enough for me! I've got a black bear that follows me around and this sculpture is that moment when it is just coming into view."
Nearby, to "converse" with "Black," Hicks has hung Tilly Kettle's 1772 oil portrait of Shuja-ud-daula. "I had never heard of Kettle, but the look on the man's face will never leave my consciousness. It was the look I wanted to convey in my black bear," she says, adding "If I pour my emotions into my work, I hope you can feel it and have a connection."
Sculpture by Nicola Hicks
On view through March 9, 2014, Yale Center for British Art, 1080 Chapel St., New Haven, (203) 432-2800, britishart.yale.edu
Nicola Hicks' "Black." (Photo courtesy Yale Center for British Art)