I was genuinely shocked to see Sam Jink’s Pieta in 2007. I entered a small dimly lit back room and suddenly came upon a young man with what I took to be his dead naked father draped across his lap in the manner of a Pieta from the Christian tradition of western art.
As close as I looked for signs of its manufacture – its unreality – I found blemishes, wrinkles, hairs, and the varied pigmentation I would have found on my own or another’s body. The work defied my scrutiny, left me embarrassed for looking so long and hard at a stranger’s naked body, and left me disturbed since I could not verify the illusion. Indeed, at moments I thought I saw a chest heave, a closed eyelid flutter, so compelling was this plus-ultra-realism.
Typically in a Pieta it’s the Virgin Mary cradling the deposed body of Christ her son, an iconic form of lamentation, which has been repeated in sculpture and painting since the Renaissance. But Jinks’ is a revised, secular version of the pity we feel at a father’s passing; the middle-aged son in modern dress, the aged father draped in a towel, as if the son had retrieved his father from the hospice shower during a visit, and the father, feeling his son’s strong arms, had finally relented. The father’s aged, sagging flesh gathers in son’s cupped hand. The son’s eyes are closed as he laments (I would say also concedes) the passing of time.
Most of the figures in Jinks’ work are diminished in scale (ranging up to around five-eighths). The figures are also often naked or otherwise improbably presented (a human body with the head of a dog, or a face with no mouth, ears, nose and just whites for eyes). So their unreality should be obvious. But I am always compelled to touch the skin to prove it.
And if you do touch the work, you will find the cold hard surface of these sculptures is contrary to their appearance as soft human (or animal) flesh. What has struck many viewers as ‘weird’, ‘uncanny’, or ‘creepy’ about the works is ultimately rendered by the sense of touch as plain cadaverous. Like feeling my own father’s cold hard, stiffened face a few days after he’d died, a shock at life departed, a body vacated, although seeming so close to being alive and once again just about to move, as he had only the week before.
These figures are nearly always cast in repose, still and calm, ultimately eerie, as if they could come to life, as if they could return from death, arise from their grave. At these moments our flesh comes to rest, relenting to gravity, settling in furrows, sagging, or folding like Classical drapery, in a peaceable sleep or death; bodies reconciled to their end. Precisely, all Jinks’ work has this gravitas (from the Latin grav meaning ‘heavy, weighty, serious’); a solemnity and seriousness of life cast in the shadow of death.
However, like a photograph, the realism demands that these works be of someone, indexical traces of real people relayed through Jinks’ brilliant sculpting and casting. And I can’t help feeling these people are close to Jinks in another sense as well; friends and family cast in some intimate poses revealing their vulnerability, their transience. Which compels me to ask ‘who are they’?
We know from interviews with Jinks that the baby is modeled after photographs of his son. It’s the same baby that’s cradled by an older woman wearing a nightgown (a counterpart Madonna and child to the earlier Pieta). Too old to be the real mother, she seems more like the grandmother – the artist’s mother perhaps – passing on her calm to the boy in the middle of the night, his new pink flesh relaxed in her arms, baggy skin folding like fabric into her experienced (spotted, lined, bony) hands. What a beautiful moment for the son to render (through a vale of tears I imagine).
The same woman appears elsewhere. Eyes closed, head down; she parts what looks like a wedding veil to reveal an intricate blue-ink paisley tattoo across her flaccid torso. It’s a bizarre Freudian reckoning of her by her son on this her wedding night: her body spent (both her allure and her milk gone); the ink fading and slightly blurred.
Jinks also made a second standing Pieta, years after the first (indeed after the birth of his son), in which his own limp body is lifted by someone I presume – by his likeness – to be his father, in a tribute to the melancholy of men that often goes un-remarked.
Other figures are shrouded, so we’ll never know who, just the hint of flesh and bones beneath white sheets: a body writhing in some kind of painful transformation; a taller, bent-over figure with two tense hands clutching fistfuls of fabric. They’ve been buried too soon, suspended by Jinks ‘half-way to the devil’, yet they succumb to their fates.
The ‘restless dogs’ – cynocephali, humans with dog heads – which continue a tradition across many different cultures, well before werewolves, admit our animal selves. In Jinks’ work they are sleeping near but nonetheless apart, ‘the pack’ undone but reconciling on the verge of sleep, like two sorry lovers after a quarrel.
And the two ‘embracing’ snails momentarily conceal all the impending piercing, impaling and mutual, simultaneous penetration (each having both male and female anatomy) which comprises snail sex.
Jink’s super realism escalates the incidental detail of his family and friends to the pantheon of classical statuary and narrative, as if to prove the continuing relevance of the grand traditions. It’s a curious blend of contemporary and documentary cues within these historical and mythical tableaux (pietas, depositions, shrouds and legend), rendered in such graphic, cold and dispassionate materials – typically in some tranquil stasis – but ultimately revealing the base emotions propelling humanity; the love, hate, desire, pain and pleasure of our lives.