Caravaggio painted people like nobody’s business. He was even better with darkness, making ink-black shadows seem to open onto infinity. His best paintings combine the riveting intensity of quickly glimpsed details with the spine-tingling scariness of dark alleys and dimly cellars. In his hands, these everyday places are often more terrifying than the void.
Nancy Grossman does something similar with her sculptures of human heads. Mounted on stout pedestals and made of finely carved wood and meticulously cast porcelain, her realistic heads are lifesize. Wrapped, strapped and harnessed in black leather hoods, complete with steel chains, studs and buckles, the 72-year-old artist’s sculptures are often treated as S&M fetishes. They’re a lot more than that.
At Marc Selwyn Fine Art, Grossman’s first exhibition in California features four of her masterfully crafted heads, all made in 1968. Each is a world unto itself, its tautly stretched leather heightening, rather than hiding, the mysteriousness of the human self. Empathy is triggered.
By no means warm and fuzzy, the emotions Grossman’s hooded heads elicit are strong and serious. The unflinching stillness of her silent sentinels unleashes the imagination in the same way that the shadowy blackness of Caravaggio’s paintings draws us into their dramas.