Looking Out for No. 2: Böröcz’s Stick Figures

Against significant odds, Andras Böröcz’s dreamlike art continues to deepen, if not necessarily grow. Part of the pleasure we take in Mr. Böröcz’s work, which is on view at the Adam Baumgold Gallery, stems from how capably he beats those odds. Preciosity and folksiness would seem to come with the territory he explores: intricate box dioramas of reclusive figures (mostly men, often artists, plus a lone female model) inhabiting cloistered spaces, all carved from and constructed out of his signature material, pencils.

Courtesy of Adam Baumgold Gallery
Pencil sharpener: Andrŕs Böröcz’s The Big Nude, 2006.

An acquaintance who is no fan of Mr. Böröcz’s work likens his tall, thin loners to the figurines assembled from nuts and bolts and found in craft fairs and curio shops across the country. Though it’s true that the novelty of Mr. Böröcz’s medium is impossible to ignore, the comparison ignores the invention and meticulous dexterity brought to bear upon those pencils.

Imagine carving and constructing the human form out of a No. 2 pencil. As a sculptural medium, the pencil is obviously inflexible, and it offers little girth or stability. More forgiving materials are available. Carving the things seems a fool’s pursuit. As Mr. Böröcz proves, at times to amazing effect, it doesn’t have to be.

The pencils are an inescapable part of the charm of the work; we delight in the unexpected use of a utilitarian object. What propels it beyond the nuts-and-bolts school of art-that is to say, kitsch-is the sharpness and intensity of Mr. Böröcz’s vision. A great deal of deliberation goes into the sculptures. Pencils are the means for genuine transformation.

Mr. Böröcz isn’t completely immune to the cutes; 24 ink-and-wash drawings of outhouses-yes, outhouses-are a case in point. Mr. Böröcz is more than clever and more than a cartoonist, but you wouldn’t know it from his pictures of penguins lining up to use the john. Other sheets feature an outhouse rollercoaster and outhouses at war. You get the point. These jokes are obvious and flat (and probably affordable). The draftsmanship is adequate but doesn’t reach the heights of his sculptural know-how.

Drawing has been the weakest aspect of Mr. Böröcz’s art for some time. Placed upon the walls of his pencil-box theaters, miniature renderings of his cast of characters (done in pencil, naturally) function as either windows or objets d’art-it’s hard to tell. The ambiguity is less problematic than the drawings themselves. They’re all but extraneous, and they dull Mr. Böröcz’s fantastic world.

In any case, the drawings don’t interfere with the sculptures. Given Mr. Böröcz’s consummate skill, at least when working in three dimensions, it’s hard to imagine anything getting in their way. When sticking with what he knows (pencils, glue, oddments of wood-stuff scattered around the workshop), Mr. Böröcz works magic.

There’s not much action in his stoic, puppet show-like scenarios. Narratives unfold—inasmuch as they do unfold-quietly and mysteriously. There’s something unknowable at the heart of even the most straightforward pieces.

In one box, an artist works diligently from a model. In another, the artist drinks excessively while sitting at his drawing pad. A potted cactus is watered, a cup of tea served. An eraser-tipped everyman plays dominoes; elsewhere, the cactus does the same. In fact, dominoes are a recurring motif in the new work: Skittering around Mr. Böröcz’s settings, like sprites or maybe cockroaches, a Lilliputian array of domino-men stumble upon these scenes of solitude.

It’s an ascetic world in which every gesture is freighted with gravity. Slowing each moment, he creates situations that intimate more than they depict. It’s as if the trivial details of everyday life were of monumental consequence. The solo domino player holds a game piece in mid-air; his other hand thoughtfully touches his neck. Does the fate of the cosmos depend upon the next move? I wouldn’t bet against it.

Mr. Böröcz’s figures possess features like those of Egyptian hieroglyphs and Giacometti’s walking women; they’re types, not individuals. All the same, they possess telling and all-too-human characteristics. The relationship between body language and psychological portent is Mr. Böröcz’s forte. He carefully gauges the stilted angularity of the figures’ movements and accounts for the slightest motion, from the crook of an elbow or wrist or neck to the shuffle of their legs.

The work is narrow, yet the feelings it encompasses are palpable and real. Anxiety courses through the sculptures. The various players on their diminutive stages are quietly divided by the spaces between them; relationships-forget intimacy-are unworkable. Anomie and hushed yearning pervade the work. Mr. Böröcz’s domestic interiors are equivalent in temper to Giorgio de Chirico’s abandoned cityscapes: They’re forlorn, not homey.

And sometimes funny-Mr. Böröcz isn’t as grim as all that. He’s an absurdist, after all, and the sculptures occasionally prompt laughter. The alarmingly perky breasts of the artist’s model-fashioned, of course, from the tips of a pink pencil-are hilarious. And, yes, the pencils do retain their novelty, even as the work itself isn’t defined by it. Thinking inside the box-for Mr. Böröcz, it’s a compliment.

Andras Böröcz is at the Adam Baumgold Gallery, 74 East 79th Street, until Nov. 25.

By Mario Naves