Natalie C. Hollander Returns From Absence With Virtuoso Exhibit

More than two decades have passed since Natalie Charkow (as she then was) made her debut as a sculptor with an exhibition at the Robert Schoelkopf Gallery that was so radically unlike anything else on the contemporary art scene that it became something of a legend.

At a time when the lion’s share of critical attention was lavished on the familiar iconography of Pop Art, the austerities of Minimalism and the intellectual impoverishments of Conceptual Art, it was amazing to encounter a contemporary sculptor-especially a sculptor working in stone-who invoked the achievements of the masters from Poussin to Matisse as her subject and inspiration.

Now, after a long absence from the current scene, this remarkable artist has returned with an exhibition- Natalie Charkow Hollander: Reliefs in Stone , at the Lohin Geduld gallery in Chelsea-that’s so spectacular it may leave some of her earlier admirers (of whom I am one) wondering if they haven’t underestimated her achievement even in the course of praising it. Ms. Charkow Hollander brings to contemporary sculpture a conjunction of gifts that in modern times have seldom-if ever-been joined with such authority and invention. One of these gifts is a virtuoso command of the medium of stone-carving. Another is a profound comprehension of the formal and expressive strategies of the great pictorial masters, whose works she has, in effect, “translated” into a three-dimensional medium. Still another is a gift for sculptural narrative, which can hardly be said to exist elsewhere in modern sculpture, but which Ms. Charkow Hollander has made her signature achievement.

An accomplishment of this magnitude, which inevitably invites comparison with some of the greatest masters of Western art, requires something more than talent and craftsmanship to succeed: It requires, among much else, artistic courage and aesthetic tact-even, perhaps, a certain modesty-and Ms. Charkow Hollander is not lacking in these requirements, either.

One of her carved reliefs- Bacchus and Ariadne, after Titian, for AF (2001) – is dedicated to the late Andrew Forge, a highly accomplished painter and critic who closely followed the development of Ms. Charkow Hollander’s work, and who left us with the best description I know of her sculptures. “Their starting point,” he wrote, “is pictorial, drawn from Piero, Poussin or Matisse. The imagined (flat) space of the picture is translated into the planes of carved stone. Flatness is itself thought of as a sculpture element that can be relocated within the relief space, set back, shadowed by the depth at which it lies, a transparency of limestone.”

As this perhaps suggests, her work is intimate in scale. Though the pictorial subject is often epic, here the epic is miniaturized to the scale of lyric poetry. And, indeed, it’s as sculptural lyrics that these carved reliefs address the viewer. Like certain works of modern literature, moreover, this is sculpture that’s likely to afford an even richer experience to viewers who have some acquaintance with the paintings of Titian, Tintoretto and Matisse, and with the poetry of classical antiquity. But just as it’s possible to enjoy Joyce’s Ulysses without any knowledge of the Homeric parallels, so Ms. Charkow Hollander’s sculptural narratives are bound to delight even if you’ve never read a line of Ovid.

Ovid-or rather, one of his classic illustrators-is, in fact, the source of one of Ms. Charkow Hollander’s most ambitious works: the group of 12 reliefs called Scenes from Ovid, after Tempesta (1990) , which is based on Antonio Tempesta’s book of 150 engravings of scenes from Ovid’s Metamorphoses , published in Amsterdam in 1606. Among my own favorites in the exhibition are the exquisitely carved red sandstone relief called Feast of the Gods, after Bellini/Titian (1993) , and the group of eight limestone reliefs called Judgement of Paris (times eight) (1991) . The latter, by the way, refers to the Prince of Troy who abducted the beautiful Helen and so provoked the Trojan War.

After all the brutal insults that have been visited upon the art of sculpture in recent years, what a joy it is to see it restored to a noble purpose. If it takes an absence from the current scene of two decades to create sculpture of this quality and interest, then perhaps more of our sculptors should be encouraged to remove themselves from the daily hurly-burly.

Natalie Charkow Hollander: Reliefs in Stone remains on view at the Lohin Geduld Gallery, 531 West 25th Street, in Chelsea, through May 1.