It’s easy to see why the British sculptor Kevin Francis Gray’s 2005 body of work was so hugely appealing: London youths—the freaks and oft-romanticized street tribes of the East End—were cast as towering Rodin-like figures. These figures wore jeans, tanks, and sneakers; their faces obscured by hoodies and veils. It was urban ghetto-gothic street style immortalized in ancient materials like bronze, marble, and black resin. A once fleeting feeling was rendered permanent, mythical almost. (No surprise that Hedi Slimane was a fan and early collector.)
It would’ve been simple and possibly very lucrative for Gray to merely stay the course. “When I started out, there was a lot of interest in the fashion element,” the 40-year old artist told me last week, before his first major stateside show since that 2005 breakthrough opened at New York’s Haunch of Venison gallery (the opening reception is tonight). “And that was very exciting. But for this new body of work, I started consciously moving on from that.” Which is not to say that he’s moved away. East London is still his favored grounds to scour for models, but this time around, he’s going deeper. “I wanted to stop concealing the faces,” he said. “It wasn’t like these subjects wanted to hide themselves last time. I just didn’t have the confidence to sculpt their portraits back then. Now, it’s almost like I’m removing the veil—from the subjects and myself as an artist.”
For instance, the ensemble installation Twelve Chambers is a group portrait of sorts, one that doubles as the potential roster of a mental hospital: 12 porcelain busts, impressionistically evoked, and deeply troubled—these are people with issues. “One of the subjects has intense agoraphobia,” Gray recalled. “Another was the first subject whom I really, truly didn’t like. He was so dark, a complicated psychopath. But I was determined to capture that.” To do so, he decided that he needed to make each piece from a live sitting, which became troublesome. “Some of the subjects could only sit still for an hour, because they had to go get high or whatever,” he said. As a result, the faces are expressive and gestural rather than fussy and photorealistic. “What I’m trying to do is create a juxtaposition,” he said. “The surface is glossy and consumable, but look deeper beneath that and you’ll see a darker underworld.”
“Kevin Francis Gray” runs through September 29 at Haunch of Venison New York, 550 West 21st Street.