May 12th, 2021, 01:46 PM

On 10 years of Ralph Petty’s “Listening”: A hermeneutic

By James Ward
Image Credit: AUP Communications
Bequest to The American University of Paris

Professor of Applied Art and Sculptor Ralph Petty’s gift to The American University of Paris of his masterpiece “Listening” is a major contribution to the enduring fabric of Parisian art and expression in custody of an American institution in Paris. Petty’s gift was a capstone of his 25 years of service to AUP and was given in honor of the University’s 50th Anniversary. Now in the University’s 60th year, his gift of “Listening” has been with us a decade.

What has his work inspired?

His statement in “Listening” invites contemplation and reflection, and our University is hallowed by its enduring testimony now and to future generations of students, staff, and faculty.  Petty has chiseled meaning from stone. We see, and he invites us to listen.

We begin our hermeneutic with the base, for Petty also has chosen his pedestal with thought and care. Upon first inspection a deceptively simple pillar bringing the sculpture to shoulder height which introduces us to the top of stone: a flat surface in the back, moving to figurative curls of hair at its dominant side, approaching smooth, level, yet unpolished. The pedestal therefore is indispensable for the sculpture’s complete expression, for our eyes look down upon this surface and a transition from plane to figure.

The pedestal is, to borrow an expression, “fruit of the earth and work of human hands.” A one-meter-high log from a tree, rough wood, with a long vertical natural cleft, some might argue a soto voca feminine note. Fissures open and close, creating shadows pointing invitation above. To this natural shape Petty has gouge-chiseled parallel rivulets, curved tongues of small negative space, beginning and ending only so long as a single chisel stroke, removing bark and taking from the original log only a thin layer of its mass. These strokes of obvious and evident hand begin to curve upward as they ascend the pedestal, gentle accents waving, supporting the sculpture itself. The wood rivulets ascend to the stone, becoming finer and more distinct and more finished as they ascend. Petty recently has re-treated this wood, tung oil, and minimal polishing, for he has not plasticized the pedestal, and it will throughout this sculpture’s existence demand periodic care. Care we must return to through our years. How like the sculpture’s admonition of “listening.” We must care at its base to listen to one another, and this compels and demands our constant, repeated, and returned care to listen.

Petty’s selection of stone medium was within his oeuvre habits, for Petty loves to work with materials at hand. “Listening” therefore began as ordinary French stone of common provenance, selected for its durability certainly, but was not hewn from a rare vein of distant rock. “Listening” began its journey to Petty’s expression in immediate nearness, as our own listening should.

Turning to our faces within the rock. Upon first viewing, like a child we recognize faces, human ones, expressive, and of character, different, yet complementary. But these are not faces from a life model, persons captured in sanded stone. Recognizably real, yet slightly abstract and universal. Faces… but not “a” face, or “b” face.

On the one side, the left, a face, smiling, is it Etruscan? Archaic Greek? A kuoros? For the face recalls a smile, a shape, a realness, and an antiquity in those we have seen before in our most ancient memories. Memories our forbearers made to record that they too smiled.

On the right, the mouth is set in a more ambiguous mood. Is it an uncertain smile? Neutral? Lips slightly compressed in a serious tone? The face, is that a fragment from Angkor Petty has remade? Jayavarman VII, eyes closed in contemplation? A Siddhartha fragment?

These faces Petty has sculpted recall all sculpture and all faces, ancient and our own. These are not an African, European, Arab, Asian, ancient, or new, abstract or realist, … but all faces. In these faces, partial faces, we can partially glimpse our own. And those of others, and those of our memories.

And we are struck, forcefully, by two bold statements by Petty. Like a diamond bullet of a third eye as we open ourselves to his vision, a sutra in stone. The first is these are the half faces: the face on the left is half a face, the right side of the face as we observe. The face on the right is half a face, the left side of the face as we observe. Petty has offered us partial faces for us to complete ourselves and see ourselves, the enduring presence of the absence of another side of the face invites deeper contemplation. As we listen, are we also not having thoughts unknown, unseen, and unsculpted?

Petty’s boldest insight is a treasure only discovered by those who take the time for the sculpture’s proper consideration. For it is in a cleft, repeated from the pedestal, of the faces and their closeness together. My voice from the discipline of mathematics speaks: it is at what point the tangency of these faces? How does the tangency speak?

The faces are at a slight angle from each other, say 45 degrees. If their eyes were open they would see partially coincident areas of landscape, yet also their absent sides would take in visions the other would not see. But it is the tangency that unveils the treasure that is the delight and bold statement Petty has created. The faces, distinct, partial, but sharing space, are touching at their ears.

It is the touching ears that is the flower of revelation of “Listening.” A point made so softly it is a wonder it is in stone, a subtlety so moving and deep, we must keep watching to see, and are disoriented and reoriented. Like a breath, a catch of a song on the wind, a light and a new window. A new revelation upon an old memory.

In Petty’s “Listening” the eyes of the faces are closed, or is one open? They have no hands, no bodies, even the seat of their thoughts above their faces is absent, a level place where the home of thoughts might be. Their mouths are shut. But their ears touch.

Beyond encouraging you to discover and come to your own hermeneutic on Petty’s “Listening” I share in closing: Some years ago AUP had an excellent graduate student who is blind.  With great pleasure on a sunny day I was with her in the courtyard of the AMEX Café and introduced her to Petty’s work, for sculpture can be seen, but also just as legitimately felt, just as its creator felt the sculpture into being. Spring in Paris, the AMEX porch, warm sun chasing winter gloom. Amidst the happy chatter of her fellow students, talking and listening, Braille book to the side she reached out into the space, finding Petty’s gift. Her hands explored the base, planes and curves of the warm stone, and I told her about my colleague Ralph Petty, telling her the sculpture is called “Listening.” I believe her face looked perplexed, but only for a moment. And then her hands, exploring, found the secret, found and touched the touching ears. And she smiled.

Ralph Petty’s “Listening” is in The American University of Paris’s permanent collection and currently is on display in the courtyard of the AMEX Café. “Listening” was donated by the artist in celebration of the University’s 50th anniversary. Petty was a Professor of Fine Arts at AUP for 25 years and established the Fine Arts major. In 2004, he founded the Fine Arts Gallery and became its first curator, and established the University's permanent collection, consisting of artwork from students, faculty and former exhibitors of the Fine Arts Gallery.