RACSO Art Gallery presents ‘“ContraFuerte”: Conceiving an Urban Sculpture’

An outdoor sculpture spans the centuries

On one wall of East Passyunk’s RACSO Art Gallery's "ContraFuerte": Conceiving an Urban Sculpture exhibition, several drawings hang: charcoal on paper, all quick lines and light contours, of human figures clambering upward. On the opposite wall are framed color images of data from a 3-D laser scanner, pixellated abstracts in sharp blues and hot red-oranges. To create “ContraFuerte,” a public sculpture that will be installed in summer 2018 above the 1200 block of Cuthbert Street, artist Miguel Antonio Horn drew on both traditional and nontraditional techniques.

A clay model of the soon-to-be-finished piece in 1:9 scale. (Photo courtesy of RACSO Art Gallery)

In the middle of RACSO’s snug space stands the love child of these artistic traditions and technologies. It’s a 15-foot-tall figure constructed of layered foam, a stoic giant bent slightly forward, one massive hand pressed against the wall. Flanking the figure are pencil sketches, small-scale studies, and poured bronze castings paired with 21st-century laser scans (like the ones Google uses for mapping). The lasers render three-dimensional images of the alley and the bridge, 20 feet above the sidewalk, where Horn’s figures will rest.

Tension and tangle

Except they’re not exactly resting. "ContraFuerte" consists of eight figures — four on each side of the bridge — that seem to be climbing, grappling, or striving, their bodies entangled in an effort to surmount (or perhaps hold up) the 30-foot-wide bridge.

It’s not the piece Horn initially planned to make. When he first toured the project site, commissioned by the city’s Percent for Art program, he eyeballed more conventional locations for public art: a planter, an open façade.

Then he turned a corner and glanced down Cuthbert Street. “I saw that bridge and thought: What is that?” Horn recalls. “It’s an alley, with no commerce or public services. There’s no need to go down there unless you’re delivering something. I wanted to bring the sense of discovery I had when I first came upon it.”

A large-format Styrofoam sculpture layered with sheets of foam holds up the gallery wall. (Photo courtesy of RACSO Art Gallery.)
A large-format Styrofoam sculpture layered with sheets of foam holds up the gallery wall. (Photo courtesy of RACSO Art Gallery.)

Horn, a large-format sculptor who has worked with the human figure since his student days at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, envisioned the site as a literal and metaphoric bridge: a way to combine human forms with architectural elements, literal with abstract.

Contemporary architecture, with its expanses of machine-tooled glass and steel, “has less and less of the visual connection to those who were involved in erecting the building,” he says. “That kind of removes the figure from the built environment.” At the same time, “the larger composition, as you stand back, resembles an architectural ornamentation.”

21st-century methods

To create figures that would seem to be interacting with the bridge and walls rather than simply pasted onto them, Horn rented a 3-D laser scanner like the ones used for surveying and construction. He used the scanned data to make scale models—in cast aluminum or poured bronze—of the sculpture, and also to create the giant figure, which consists of half-inch sheets of foam layered like a topographical map.

The screenshots of those scans fascinated him—some resemble holograms, capturing the flow of pedestrian traffic near the site, while others are pure, pixellated abstracts. “The fun part was to have the contrast between the very clear tradition of models, drawings, and sketches and this other process that’s really contemporary,” he said.

The sculpture’s title, ContraFuerte (“against force” or “counterforce”), is meant to capture another duality. “I couldn’t help but be affected by the political climate,” Horn said. “This is a group of individuals trying to be their own counterforce against structures that may feel beyond them. It speaks toward the larger capacity of collective action.”

An early charcoal-on-paper version of the sculpture, titled 'Rising Tide.' (Photo courtesy of RACSO Art Gallery.)
An early charcoal-on-paper version of the sculpture, titled 'Rising Tide.' (Photo courtesy of RACSO Art Gallery.)

Together, the figures form a sculptural ballet: one has a leg slung over another’s shoulder; an arm reaches around a waist. They are clearly in relationship — effortful and intimate — with one another and with the task at hand.

A changing vision

RACSO’s show is an illuminating glimpse into the artist’s trajectory: an early iteration of the sculpture shows disparate figures standing, climbing, and sitting on the bridge’s edge. Later models have the figures more dynamically entwined.

“The focus became more about the structure they’re trying to erect, the community they’re trying to support or sustain,” Horn says. “It’s the bridge that gives them their purpose, their mission and their burden.” He wanted the show to embrace the art’s unfolding, not just its endpoint. “When we see public art, we see the final thing. I like to see the process.”

In the final production phase, Horn will make a 1:3 scale model, followed by digital renderings, then the finished sculpture, created from half-inch thicknesses of aluminum layered topographically (with the help of those 3-D scans). “I hope it catches [viewers] to bring them in… and give them that sense of discovery,” he says. “Ultimately, what I hope it inspires in people is reframing the sense of an individual’s capacity in the context of community.”

At the exhibit’s opening last week, viewers sipped wine, nibbled empanadas, and examined the old and new, the figurative and the abstract, the models both tinier and larger than life. A woman with a toddler hoisted on her hip looked at Horn’s model of the entire sculpture, bodies pressed to the cast-aluminum wall. “Maybe they’re climbing?” she prompted her son. “Or do you think they’re holding it up?” The child was silent. Maybe it’s all of the above.

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