Easy to love Jaume Plensa's sculptures for their face value.
Pardon the pun: They are faces, blown up to oversize proportions along with full-body statues. But they aren't portraits in the sense that Plensa's aim is not to depict a specific person or even a personified ideal. His goal is to imbue a physical form with an idea, thought or philosophical statement. Or, even better, to encourage viewers to supply their own.
Technically, nine sculptures plus drawings and prints comprise "Jaume Plensa: Human Landscapes" at the Tampa Museum of Art, but the actual number is higher because some works contain multiple sculptures. The most striking installation is Awilda and Irma, two heads, each about 15 feet tall, made of steel mesh. In past exhibitions, they have been shown in an outdoor setting. At the Tampa museum, they face each other in a gallery. The gallery is huge and easily accommodates them as well as several smaller sculptures and works on paper. Yet their interaction seems more intimate in this indoor context. The mesh gives them a diaphanous appearance as we see into and through them. Their lips are closed so we can imagine their conversation begins inside of each and then drifts out through hundreds of openings rather than their mouths. Despite their monumental proportions, they are ethereal and airy.
Though made of cast iron and looming over us at more than 20 feet, Laura With a Bun has a similar delicacy. It adds grace to a graceless corner of the museum, next to the railroad tracks but with a decent view of the Hillsborough River. The head is elongated and flattened so that, from certain angles, it looks like a flat plane instead of a dimensional piece. The dark iron suggests a shadow. You will notice that the eyes, as in all of Plensa's sculptures, are not just closed, they are worked to suggest a recession into the head, looking inward instead of outward. Plensa speaks a lot about trying to picture the soul, and his sculptures could be seen as representing "an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace" as some Christian denominations word the concept. The clean, serene lines, the sightless eyes, belie an intentional contradiction in much of Plensa's work: that our eyes are needed to access this form of soul-searching.
The artist has called his works "bottles where you can find the message." In the full-body sculptures, the messages are more direct. The forms are sometimes made using letters, numbers and symbols. The Soul of Words I and II uses eight alphabets to shape two men sitting, facing each other. Language is a communicator unique to humans, yet, as Plensa might be saying with his Tower of Babel jumble, it can create more barriers than bonds. Or the openness of these sculptures may be a metaphor for open-mindedness.
The Heart of Trees is probably the most specific and personal work. It's an installation of seven identical bronze self-portraits embracing seven foxtail palms. (It's informally called Tree Huggers.) Each figure bears names of Plensa's favorite 19th and 20th century composers. Created in 2007, it's one of the older works in the exhibition but represents a new sensibility dating from 2004, when his famous Crown Fountain debuted in Chicago's Millennium Park. It used 1,000 faces of Chicago residents projected onto a glass block wall. Each opens his mouth and, instead of words, water spouts out. It generated his interest in sculpting the human form, which he has been doing now for more that a decade. But he also loves music and literature, especially poetry, and his work, older and newer, embodies them, too. While The Heart of Trees references music, for example, it is silent because anything aural can be a distraction from the contemplative state Plensa hopes his works inspire.
The only nonfigurative work in the exhibition is Silent Rain, which is also an older one, created in 2003. It employs language and sound and is interactive. Metal letters are strung on cords hanging from the ceiling in what seems like random order. But they are lines from some of his favorite poets, and a diverse group they are, including Dante, Shakespeare, Goethe, Blake, William Carlos Williams and Allen Ginsberg. The quotes are arranged vertically rather than horizontally, so reading them requires concentration. As you decipher the lines, you walk through this "curtain," creating a melodic tinkling.
If you are ever fortunate enough to have a conversation with Jaume Plensa, as I did several weeks ago, you will understand more deeply that he most of all wants us to enjoy his art, find a sense of serenity, however temporary, in it and not stretch for cosmic truths. Everything we need is already inside us, he might say, and his sculptures might help as conduits.
Contact Lennie Bennett at email@example.com or (727) 893-8293.