Nicola Hicks’ recent sculptural tableaux, depicting humans, animals, and frightful crossbreeds of towering stature, exemplify art’s ability to produce rich, nonverbal worlds. Though the works on view at Flowers Gallery are classified merely as plaster (to be cast in bronze upon purchase), they in fact begin with wire skeletons that the British artist then stuffs with a mélange of straw and dirt before coating. This gives the sculptures a raggedly textured surface that evokes scarecrows, effigies, or other such ritualistic totems—an association compositionally redoubled in works like Dressed for the Woods (2013), which depicts an apparent rendezvous between two hooded human figures and a bear. Looming large, the works put physical presence before formal detail (barely discernable facial expressions just faintly register sobriety or sorrow), calling forth the occult, the unspeakable, the deeper semantic layers of a fairy tale.
There is a lot to be said for art capable of tapping into and elaborating upon these deeper reservoirs of significance. Ms. Hicks, however, does not seem comfortable with straying too far from the more prosaic realm of social life. The works now on display at Flowers Gallery all emerged in the wake of the economic recession that began in 2008, and explicit responses to this event abound in the series. One need look no further than Hicks’ titles for her interpretational instruction: Banker I (2009) depicts a diminutive, pot-bellied man in tattered tails leading a small bear by a leash, while Banker II resembles an enormous man with a bull’s skull in place of his head, striding with the halves of a severed dog in each hand. Thus, Hicks employs her powerful aesthetic sensibilities in the service of visual puns about bull and bear markets.
This tension between what I have portrayed as the nonverbal and verbal qualities of Hicks’ work is somewhat frustrating. The former generate emotionally arresting realms through scenes of inscrutable sorrow, conspiracy, violence, and humility—an entirely apt, historically specific reaction to the ugliness of the financial system that came into high relief in 2008—while the more articulated statements threaten to flatten the works into clichés (greed turns humans into beasts) or bottom out in toothless social critique (the financial system is like an occult order).
The same dichotomy holds among the charcoal work included in the exhibition. Hicks is a phenomenal draftswoman, and her depictions of a bear and a donkey, executed in a tight yet animatedly gestural cross-hatching technique on brown paper, succeed in summoning the creatures beyond merely depicting them. She endows the animals with a startling depth of emotion, while allowing their textured, pattern-like forms to envelop the viewer as worlds in themselves. Yet in this medium, too, Hicks disrupts what would have been a powerfully rich silence with the harsh presence of language: Chatte (2013) backgrounds a drawing of a cat with its titular label in bold, looping letters. Whether a nod to the historical avant-garde or simply an act of whimsy, the linguistic signifier is unwelcome here. It seems that with Hicks, the most potent elements are those which words fail.
Nicola Hicks is on view at Flowers Gallery in New York through February 1, 2014 .