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Birth Movement or Just Movement?

Take a good look at the object in the above photograph and give us your honest second impression as to what you think it is. This being a family newspaper, we don’t want to hear your first impression.

Besides, that’s not what this thing is . . . is it? No, no, it can’t be. This is a world-class sculpture, from the hands of a world-class sculptor, and it wouldn’t be sitting in the main courtyard of Scripps Clinic, like an abandoned wedge of petrified brontosaurus colon, if it was . . . well something unpleasant.

“Okeanos,” for that is its name, is not unpleasant, or wasn’t meant to be, or maybe it was. Who knows? The artist, William Tucker, may know. He spent long hours at it, raising the lump from nothing but wires and plaster and such, casting it in bronze and then having it lugged all the way from New England to La Jolla, where it was unveiled recently, presumably right side up.

Tucker is a famous sculptor, a former Constructivist who, according to New York magazine art critic Kay Larson, is “one of a small but growing number of sculptors who have resurrected older traditions in order to satisfy postmodernist demands for empathy, allusiveness and a sense of human presence.”

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Ah, art critics. You gotta love ‘em--pulling those abstract thoughts from thin air and casting them in complete sentences. Here are two complete sentences that Larson wrote in her recent review of Tucker’s work:

“ ‘Okeanos’ . . . lifts its inchoate bulk off the grass as though in a birth movement on its way to substance and form. It masters the problem of being something that is also nothing: Hinged at the ‘waist,’ it seems to rise, or to bend, or to twist its body on an axis of self-reflection, like Rodin’s ‘Thinker.’ ”

Let’s check in with Time magazine critic Robert Hughes, who calls “Okeanos” Tucker’s masterpiece.

“It packs three layers of imagery into its mass without the slightest strain or theatricality. At first it is a great bowed head and shoulders, rearing up from the earth and leaning forward. Its immense back carries memories of Matisse’s bronze backs, and its pose refers, distantly, to Brancusi’s ‘Mlle. Pogany.’ Then, from the side, one notices how it resembles a big wave about to topple--the ocean over which the deity ruled. And finally, from the front, closer in, the deep pits and bosses in the surface suggest a rock carved at random by the swilling of that sea. It is a work of astonishing power and achievement.”

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“Okeanos” weighs 3,500 pounds, which ought to deter strange admirers from trying to make off with it, and is strong enough to take all those things people other than critics have been saying about it. “Sticks and stones . . . “

An acquaintance who knows about these things said that at first “Okeanos” looked like, well that to her too, and added, with no intended irony, that “it grows on you.”

People who were at the unveiling said some of the medical staff who had left their labs in the clinic for a look at “Okeanos” were reminded of things they had left in the lab. Disgusting things, unspeakable things. Spoken. Apparently, it was all very amusing.

Is it OK for educated people to laugh at such a high-priced piece of art, or at art critics who circle it with a fury of concentration and then sculpt from their experiences towering phrases of praise that levitate with their own gaseousness?

Sure, it’s OK. In modern art, everyone’s a critic, even the surgeons who think “Okeanos” looks like a sclerotic liver or a smoker’s cooked lung. Tucker, according to the professionals, is working in the future with an eye to the past. You see the influence of Michelangelo and Rodin in “Okeanos,” don’t you? A hint of David’s elbow, a hinge at “The Thinker’s” waist?

“Okeanos” is doing its job, if Tucker meant it to provoke imagination, thought and arguments. It’s interesting that so many critics have lauded “Okeanos” for its “energy.” That’s the same stuff being spent so inefficiently by people trying to figure out what the thing is.

If something is something while at the same time being nothing, as New York magazine’s Larson so enigmatically said of “Okeanos,” is it anything? Everything? In describing the piece himself, Tucker said: “Over the years, I have developed the belief that the power of sculpture depends on its capacity to suggest many things, without literally embodying a single image. In the case of ‘Okeanos,’ you may read in it an ocean wave, and simultaneously a rock: a cloud formation, a human body, part of a body. These readings, and many others, are possible, but they neither exhaust nor explain the sculpture’s energy.”

There you have it from the horse’s mouth, so to speak. “Okeanos” may be a “birth movement” (Larson), an ocean wave (Hughes) or an ulcerated colon (unidentified surgeon). Or, you could have been right the first time.

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