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by David McCarthy, 2007

A group of specters haunts the expanse of space demarcated in Nicholas Micros’s sculpture group ‹Field› (2002-2006). Half life size, they stand somewhere in between the toy and the monument, and thus between childhood fantasy and adult retrospection as well as the space of innocent play and that of deadly combat. Or perhaps it is more accurate to suggest that ‹Field› posits a link between what might otherwise be perceived as polar opposites, namely creation and destruction. That the ensemble so clearly links such disparate experiences is a function not only of the format adopted by Micros, but also of his thoughtful selection of materials and forms.

Like many organized games and conventional warfare, ‹Field› betrays a predetermined logic, one that makes clear the nature of the contest. Arranged along a circle, the figures occupy a designated space that although turned inward is nonetheless open, signaling to viewers that their attention is welcome and necessary. One part of the ensemble is defined by small cast toys and natural forms. This perimeter gradually rises to form a rampart where the soldiers and a host of allegorical figures are in close combat. The effect is one of expansion and contraction, with the intimation that the conflict could at any moment spread across the field and spill out into the heretofore safe zone surrounding the group.

A schematic similarity binds viewers with the individual sculptures because the latter, no matter how distorted or grotesque, maintain some semblance of the human form. A motley of figures, some with bayonets thrust into space, some kneeling to steady their aim, others abjectly throwing up their hands, echoes the conventional language for depicting combat, whether found in film, monuments, or toys. As such they demand recognition of their connection to these popularizing forms, even though they reject the almost pastoral, and sometimes heroic, gloss often placed on the chaos and violence of the battlefield.

Intermixed with these figures are personifications of human limitation. Ambition, folly, hubris, and vanity, among others, make their appearance, much like the Greek gods arriving at strategic moments in the ‹Iliad› to guide the course of events. With ‹Field› the suggestion is that combat is not driven and decided by the whims of capricious deities or deceptive muses. Rather, the insight is that humans carry with them such flaws that, in turn, are used to explain uncivilized actions.

These actions command attention due to the selection of materials and techniques. Made of plaster, the figures are both cast and hand-made, often tied together with thin rope and burlap. As Micros explains, the intention is that they seem barely to hold together, their firm construction notwithstanding. This gives his forms a makeshift, almost ephemeral quality, as though they are ghosts of some dimly remembered encounter. Covered in limewash, they paradoxically have a pristine appearance. Their actions are to some extent whitewashed by the patina of art, but not entirely. They seem to be surviving relics of a bygone age, cleansed of their original color like so many Greek statues unearthed after millennia. They also suggest maquettes for a much larger memorial to come. The contrast between smoothly cast parts, such as hands, feet, and faces, and those more expressionistically worked by hand, furthers this effect of standing in between states, whether of time, finish, or grace.

All of this begins to intimate a deliberate ambivalence, if not duality, at the heart of ‹Field›. Its basic format recalls the symbolic meanings of circles, namely closure and eternity. If so, the ensemble is a perhaps pessimistic argument in that it posits more organized violence as the immediate and long-term fate of humanity. Possibly the shape links past and present to suggest that knowledge and understanding of human passion might also break the pattern. The emphasis on creation and destruction is a reminder that civilization itself contains both tendencies. Certainly history provides enough evidence to substantiate this latter point.

Then again, viewers can choose how to interact with the group. Standing inside the circle, or at least imagining to do so, offers the possibility of complicity. From outside, the perspective might be that of witnessing. Either way, the sculpture is a reminder that fields are made by humans who must bear responsibility for their use.

David McCarthy
is James F. Ruffin Professor of Art and Archaeology, Rhodes College, Memphis. He is the author of ‹H. C. Westermann at War: Art and Manhood in Cold War America›, as well as additional books and essays on American art of the 20th Century. Currently he is writing a book about American artists and war since 1935.

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