Feature: Ira B. Reines' soulful sculptures

By LOU MARANO  |  March 3, 2003 at 6:16 PM
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WASHINGTON, March 3 (UPI) -- If you're tired of "human" statuary that looks like welded scrap metal or giant Eskimo soapstone lamps, the beauty of Ira Bruce Reines' sculptures will be balm for your soul.

The Connecticut sculptor's work evokes that of Renaissance masters Gian Lorenzo Bernini and Benvenuto Cellini. It combines spiritual transcendence with the sensuality of Auguste Rodin.

But isn't figurative art passé -- mere kitsch? Doesn't it lack the irony the arts establishment finds so naughty and delightful? Isn't it "giving in" to the consumer, who should be challenged -- even shocked -- rather than gratified?

Of course, that's all a crock. The idea that art should be accessible only to the initiated, mediated by a priesthood of the cognoscenti, is a 20th-century conceit that itself is going out of fashion.

In fact, there's no such thing as an exhausted art form. Take Baroque music. Anyone composing in the Baroque style today would be laughed at. Yet we honor Felix Mendelsohn for reviving Bach's great "St. Matthew Passion" after decades of neglect. If an even more majestic Bach passion were discovered in some attic, it would be hailed as a treasure. But if a living composer were to write the same score, it would be denigrated as outworn.

Was there ever a man (or, at least, an Italian man) who never wanted to look at another pretty girl because he had seen so many already? The young women in Reines' sculptures are visual melodies -- embodying for many Jung's "anima," the female archetype projected from the unconscious minds of men.

Reporters get a lot of phone calls, and they have to get good at refusing requests. When I agreed to look at e-mail messages with images of Reines' sculptures attached, I thought I could delete them in good conscience after a glance. Instead, I tracked him down over the Internet and called him at his home in Ridgefield, Conn.

Reines' work reminded me of Frederick Hart's (1943-1999), an observation that drew mixed reactions from Reines. "I started in a very different place," he told United Press International. "I found myself on the same territory because it's a natural place for an artist who is working from his soul to go."

Reines said the similarity between his work and Hart's is the human figure in a state of mythic ascension and rebirth -- the divinity of the soul in a moment of transformation. Hart expresses this most dramatically in "Ex Nihilo" (from nothing), the central tympanum of the Creation Sculptures he executed for Washington's National Cathedral.

Hart, with whom I was acquainted, is probably best known for his statue of the three soldiers at the Vietnam Memorial in Washington. He also pioneered the use of translucent acrylic resin as a medium in which ethereal human forms seem to float.

Reines said Hart's work is "brilliant," and he admires it greatly. "The acrylics are absolutely stunning," Reines said. But Hart "expresses the ideal human form in cold and perfect separation from the 'source' and his struggle to rejoin it. The figures are insulated and isolated. Each is in his or her own universe. And I think it says something about the man. He was very much inside his own head. My work is more emotional. Hart's figures are somnambulant. They're sleepwalking in this state of transformation. That's where I feel my work greatly differs, because my figures are awakening joyously."

Gwen Pier, executive director of the National Sculpture Society in New York, told UPI that Reines' work reminded her of Hart's. She also compared Reines to Richard MacDonald, whose powerful bronzes often depict athletes and dancers.

Bruno Surdo, founder of Chicago's School of Representational Art, likened Reines' sculptures to those of Bernini. "I think they're very artistic, very poetic, and very well-done," said the painter. "I respect them, by all means, because I know how hard it is to sculpt and do figures like that. It's really unique in this day and age."

Reines, 44, a self-taught prodigy, has been sculpting since he was 5. A measure of success came early, but the full expression of his original voice came only after personal loss.

At age 20, he began an 11-year collaboration with Erte, the Art Deco impresario. Erte (Romain de Tirtoff, 1892-1990) was a Russian-born, Paris-based painter and fashion illustrator. Reines turned Erte's two-dimensional designs into a collection of bronze sculptures that was sold all over the world.

"When I started working with him, he was 88," Reines said. "It was kind of a hidden role."

Elton John, Elizabeth Taylor and Barbra Streisand were among those who bought the statues.

I remarked that Reines' figures look more like Art Nouveau than Art Deco. He replied that he found his own voice, but not before much suffering.

"I was very lucky. I had a lot of success. I had a lot of love." But he lost a long-term relationship, and his parents died five months apart in 1998. "Everything was stripped off my work except the soul," he said. "I have expressed what my soul is feeling through poetry and drawings and sculpture. ...

"I love expressing my art through the beauty of the feminine form."

Reines has intense visualizations from his dreams and draws them upon awakening.

"Beauty is a perfect reflection of divinity," he said.

(Photo WAX2003030301 available at www.upi.com/photos)

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