Here are some heads. They are made from cardboard, wood glue, and metal screws. Each head is held in place by a wood clamp. The clamps are made in the USA; the heads are made by a Seattle sculptor, Scott Fife. Five of the heads are human; one is of a fabulous animal, a werewolf. This fabulous creature, however, has something wrong with it: A human ear is embedded in its evil ear. The human in the animal is the point from which the first meaning (the human animal) of the exhibit, True Grit, emanates.
From this initial emanation we get heads that have the shape of Jane Russell, Billy the Kid, Bruce Lee, John Wayne, and Geronimo. And what is the basic meaning of this system of famous heads? What principle is at work? With each head, the line of the American (as a culture) and the line of the animal (as a natural force) intersect to form the American animal. The animal force can be sexual, as with Jane Russell; or it can be aggressive, as with Billy the Kid. But in this initial system of meaning, Jane Russell has less to do with the other human heads and more to do with the animal one. On the day I visited at Platform Gallery, the werewolf was on the floor right behind the head of Jane Russell. The proximity of the heads was much like two stars that are so close that they exchange star stuff.
But sex and violence is the entry and not the end of these "cultural personalities." On one level of meaning, they are part of the animal/human dialectic (if not dynamic), but on a deeper level they are about the substance of a myth. The image of John Wayne is not just the image of a person, but also the image of a myth, a form of language, a type of narrative. In his face, there is the American hero, the bad Indians, the Wild West, the horses, and the violent collision between a Christian civilization and the timelessness of nature. Wayne's face says these things, and says them nonstop—in the inexhaustible language of the mythic.
Against the mythic and its permanence is the impermanence of the material. This is where Fife's genius first makes an appearance. The material is basic, simple, even a little messy—the face of a sculpture has hardened trails of wood glue, holes that expose the empty space within its head, and a variety of small screws. This messiness, coupled with the impermanence of the cardboard, disturbs the permanence of the mythic.
The mythic wants the honor of marble or stone. It is here to stay and so must be made of things that are here to stay. The moment you make it out of things that are recyclable, biodegradable, fragile, flammable, you are devaluing or mocking the inexhaustible substance of the myth. But the strangeness of Fife's sculptures is that the mockery of the mythic is not intentional. That is not what he first had in mind with these heads. Because of the great care put into them (a process that can be seen in the online video "Making Lionel Hampton"), Fife is not the source of the mockery. Instead it is the mythic that mocks itself.
It is here that the show becomes a maze of meanings. In Fife's hands, it is up to the mythic itself to preserve or lose dignity in the messy but carefully prepared cheap materials. For example, with the bust that represents the most famous Native American warrior, Geronimo, none of the mythic force is weakened by the cardboard, glue, and screws. And if you look through a hole by its eye, you will see small, saintly shafts of light falling through the sacred night of its empty head. The space within Geronimo is a sanctuary of stillness and renewal.
None of this nobility or peace can be found within or on the surface of the sculpture that represents John Wayne. Because his image rejects the soft and simple materials with which it was made, his image mocks itself. The image of Wayne feels that the legend, the tireless dignity of Wayne, deserves much better.
This matter of mockery and nobility is convoluted even further by the Bruce Lee sculpture, which has in it the sexual, the racial, the noble, the mockery, the violence, the outsider, and the insider. The head of Bruce Lee points to the next and probably final level of meaning: the post-American, global mythic.