Samantha Lyons: Figure/figura

Upon entering the central court of the Spencer Museum of Art, your eyes are immediately drawn upwards. Lining the walls, from floor to ceiling, are scores of figures dramatically represented, in various sizes and positions, in prints that in the alteration of gauzy and sharp-focused reproduction of their subjects appear soft and worn. These prints, from presepio figures in the museum’s collection, tower over visitors and transform the space into a sterile and secular cathedral.

They also act on the perimeter of your vision. With one figure in front of you, the rest form a collective group—unified in their wash of filtered light and pink tones, yet separate with their frameless borders. The effect is intimate yet distant. Whether figures stand with their backs to you or return your gaze, most offer silent conversation through hand gestures or the graceful tilt of the head. To see the actual figures that inspired Hamilton’s work in the adjoining room—small and delicate—comes as a surprise. The grandeur of these figures in the prints belies their diminutive size.

It is fitting that Ann Hamilton titled this work figura because the word speaks to many individual parts and larger intersections within the room. Figura, Italian for figure, is an apt title for the more literal-minded. Figura poetically displays the human form of the presepio dolls. The naming also speaks to something much grander and lyrical than sheer description. Figura etymologica, a stylistic device found in Homer’s epic poems, relates to language, communication, and—most notably in the case of Ann Hamilton’s works—the act of revealing the unexpected. A simple turn of a word (“to live life!”) becomes animated and new.

The artist does not bring new things into the world so much as she finds a bond between things that are already present. She finds and responds to the connective threads between what most would not notice. The lively 18th-century Italian dolls, the ornate marbled floors, the piano that undoubtedly made its way through Rome on Liszt’s grand tour, the historical and physical contours of the space, and the silent interchange made between them. She presents presence. The space inside becomes charged and still in the figures’ wake. When they leave, their absence may still linger in the room.

Samantha Lyons, History of Art graduate student, University of Kansas

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