As you enter Kevin Francis-Gray’s exhibition at Pace Gallery, you can make out three groups of sculptures. On the right are five large untitled bronze busts, and in the centre is 12 Chambers (2013), a group of life-size bronze figures. At the far end we see a marble sculpture, Ballerina and Boy (2013). The features of the black busts are sculpted over frames, so that holes in the faces reveal yellow gleams of unpainted bronze within. Each is mounted on marble plinths that contrast with the rough textures of the bronze. One is instantly reminded of Rodin, especially with one head that resembles Man With A Broken Nose (1864).

The debt to Rodin deepens with 12 Chambers, in which the group of naked men and women in various existential poses recall Rodin’s 1889 masterpiece, The Burghers of Calais. As with the busts, the roughly-sculpted and blackened bronze is offset by the shining bronze plinths the statues stand on. Several heads are used twice, as in the Burghers, but instead of trudging forward in reluctant self-sacrifice, they mill about hopelessly. While Francis-Gray’s technique is clear to see, there is no real personality to the grouped figures beyond a twice-repeated Mohican. As the name implies, each of these figures are as hollow as the five busts.

The most original sculpture in the room is Ballerina and Boy, which features a ballerina, her face covered in a shroud, walking en pointe as she carries an unconscious boy over one shoulder. There’s a strong Rococo influence in the intricate marble-work, which draws particularly from Giuseppe Sanmartino’s Veiled Christ, in which Christ’s features are defined by marble folds. In essence, however, it is most like Michelangelo’s unfinished Pieta Rondanini, in which Mary bears the dead Christ, whose feet drag along the ground: this is an existentialist pieta, with the light and slender forms weighed down with heavy symbolism.

Sammy Mendel Pace Gallery

…it winks at the art crowd while making bedroom eyes at the oil-rich…

This is a room of skilfully-rendered, valuable objects, like the suits in nearby Savile Row. In its golden gleam it reeks of what Veblen called ‘conspicuous consumption’, or in modern parlance, ‘bling’. In repackaging old ideas with a post-modern statement about the expensive materials, it winks at the art crowd while making bedroom eyes at the oil-rich. Both types were out in force at the opening: I was definitely the worst-dressed person there. As I walked around the room, a man with blue hair leaned forward to take a crotch-shot of one of the statues, which he showed to his friends. I left with haste, eschewing the free drinks.

The reason the man found a bronze penis hilarious is that, at some level, nakedness shocks him. We live in an age where conservatism dresses as chic: where a prime minister who axes more nurses than Thatcher listens to Dylan and the Smiths. Kevin Francis-Gray’s neoclassical art, which lies in the safety-zone between old and new, is likely to appeal to those types. No doubt they will pay good money for it, and deservedly, given Francis-Gray’s evident skill. But for me, the statues’ existentialist postures detract from their expressiveness, giving them a decorative quality, and they end up being out-shined by the plinths they rest on.

Arts_2.5 Stars2.5 Stars

The exhibition runs until the 18 January 2014.

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