I had the privilege of meeting Mark Griffin after a long quiet spell observing his work in his latest exhibit, Dream Red Body. Being an admirer of craftsmanship, and familiar with the labor and time intensive process of the bronze foundry, stepping into the exhibit inspires an exhalation. Many pieces, high polish, tons of lost wax handwork... this show is going to require relaxation, an open mind, and most importantly time devoted to seeing all of what is laid out before me. Beyond the shine and volume of the metal presented, there is another outstanding, first glance level – the sculpture plainly deals with, in an independent manner, a vocabulary of Indian religious iconography.
How perfect to then speak briefly with Griffin about his work, methods and motivation, and to discover how much more is involved in the work, and that wonder I see repeated time and again in active creators who are truly engaged in their own intensive fabrication. Personable and direct, Griffin gave the impression of an everyman, just the sort of individual you might meet in a market and find agreeable, and on discovering the breadth of his labors are neither surprised nor unsurprised at just what he has revealed personally through his expression.
Setting aside the cultural connotations that the artist explores expertly and with a seasoned depth, the heart of the work is figurative. Working intensively with photography and photo manipulation techniques, and more recently a significant enterprise in cast bronze sculpture, his working methods are rigorous. As he formed the wax originals with countless hours evident in the shapes, the cascading detail and textures of the metal, he explained the way the conception of pursuing the different dimensions of the human form unfolded and divided into further revelation. Much as he discovered through the manipulation of photographs, handling the sculpting material and coming into physical contact with the substance of each figurative work he created reveals and hones a personality in individuating directions beyond what he initially, intentionally conceived.
Discovering this again and again, allowing the figures to reveal themselves, directly informs his own inquiry into the nature of being. Working with a known and observable container – be it the symbolism of Hindu devas and devis, the physical body, or the setting of figure within natural elements (flames, water, trees) he employs his artistry in order to capture and explore the “expression of the matrix between the physical and unseen energetic components of the human form.”
The Dream Red Body exhibit included both mediums which Griffin uses to describe and investigate what he calls the invisible energy body. Throughout his work there is a range, from suggestive to nearly literal, of Hindu iconographic symbolism. Perhaps due to the relatively new technology involved in photo-manipulation, his large prints are suggestive of this (such as layered stop motion creating a multi armed effect) but hold a distinct character that distinguishes the hand of the image taker. They also possess a curious air of independent, extemporaneous investigation, similar to the character found in old silvertone and sepia prints from the very first days of photography. Griffin's sculptures on the other hand require more than a glance to see beyond the initial impression – a room full of Hindu deities. A closer look abolishes the possibility of direct reference. The figures may wear a tiered crown, wield objects and weapons in many hands (symbolic tools that banish and defeat ignorance and bestow gifts), bear the physiognomy of a third eye, or float on the back of a multi-headed Naga. Nevertheless each piece possesses a distinct voice that departs well outside the boundaries of formality found in religious art. Some of the pieces are highly abstracted, without identifiable features, more suggestive of copper colored flame than the human body. Some of the figures are almost hidden within petal shapes piled up like scales, or perched like small monkeys in the tangled branches of a tree that sprouts from a birth canal. Everything has the imprint of handwork, facial features are formed with applied coiling reminiscent of early treasures produced in early American civilizations. The artist explained that his intention with the sculpture was to expand the methodology within the prints by outlining a series composed of a dozen pairs of male and female bronze figures; the Dream Red Body show incredibly represented but half of the progress in this undertaking. The artist allows the specific individual figure from this list to self-identify during the working process, a further stage of involvement with this internal, conceptual process.
In researching his career, I found repeated on several occasions that his work is influenced by German Expressionism, particularly Joseph Beuys, Anselm Kiefer, and George Baselitz. When I asked him about this, it seemed clear he had moved on, keeping in a sense the study of the relationship between body and being... outward expression, form, the idea of being taking the shape of the human body and so extending itself through the movements and presence of a person's corpus. Departing from this point, it appears as though the focus has moved from the relationship of the self employing the body to express, to unravelling the layers, the subtle bodies, that make up a being, and viewing these things as a whole.
Griffin is a prime example of an artist who is fully invested in his work, mentally and physically, something that is plain to see in the subject matter he thoroughly reworks around his own investigations, and the sheer scale of craftsmanship present in the intensive process of his work.