Sculptor Plensa brings tender emotion to cold steel

Jaume Plensa is esteemed in the field of public art, an enterprise that often means sacrificing heart to the challenges of engineering, community needs and managing a staff.

But Plensa’s work pulses with quiet emotion.

The Barcelona-based artist is best known in the U.S. for his beloved Crown Fountain in Chicago’s Millennium Park.

You can see “Waves III,” one of Plensa’s smaller public sculptures, on the campus of Davidson College. A gift from alumnus James G. Pepper (class of 1965), it is a focal point on campus, helping define a previously undistinguished space.

It also inspired the exhibition “Jaume Plensa: Sculptures and Drawings,” now on view at the college’s Van Every/Smith Galleries.

“After we installed Jaume’s work on campus, we realized it would be useful to curate an exhibition of his work for the Van Every/Smith Galleries – to help place the work we had just ‘dropped’ onto campus (‘Waves III’) into the context of the artist’s larger body of work,” says Lia Newman, the galleries’ director and curator.

Plensa’s public sculptures and projects, although often enormous, have a personal, warm beauty. The smaller works on view in the galleries ramp up the intimacy.

The exhibition includes seated male figures, large bronze heads and mixed media drawings. Each one is, in some way, about knowledge and contemplation.

Most of the male figures are composed of stainless steel letters. Despite the steel’s coldness, the letters are lacy and fanciful; you can look right through these airy sculptures. Plensa combines letters from different alphabets in a single work as a celebration of diversity.

The figures kneel or sit with knees to chest. They are incomplete, with gaping holes instead of faces or other parts of the body.

In Plensa’s large public works, these openings allow people to walk in, turn around and see the surrounding environment from the figure’s viewpoint. In the gallery-sized sculptures, the openings heighten the figures’ vulnerability.

Most of these figures sit on bases made of stone. But in “Nuage IV,” both the figure and base are composed of the stainless steel letters, giving it an added energy, as if there is a vortex within the base pulling you in.

The large bronze heads, each about 7 feet tall, are reminiscent of Easter Island heads. They are elongated and flat, with an odd perspective that deepens their mystery.

The models for these sculptures are 8- to 14-year-old girls, whom Plensa sees as representing the future. They appear deeply introspective, with eyes closed.

The drawings are done on a thick vellum-like paper coated with an acrylic medium. Rather than preliminary drawings, they are finished works. Rumpled and thick, they have a sculptural feel.

In several drawings, meticulously rendered heads seem to dissolve into a stream of symbols.

Like most of Plensa’s public art, the sculptures and drawings in this exhibition are entirely figurative. But while they depict bodies, they celebrate a life of the mind.