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The Sculptor Who Reconceives Classical Myths

TO UNDERSTAND the ethereal sculptures made by the American artist Yoko Kubrick, you have to know your Greek mythology: The quarrels and trysts of those gods and goddesses inform her work just as they’ve inspired sculptors since the Athenian master Phidias, who, in the fifth century B.C., carved anthropomorphic statues of Zeus, Athena and their cohort in fine detail, from their flared nostrils down to their sandaled feet. Kubrick, who works primarily in Tuscany, uses the same milky Italian marbles and handwork techniques as her mostly male predecessors, but to experience her abstract pieces is less to stare into the face of the divine than to encounter three-dimensional renderings of divinity’s ineffable essence.

Consider, for instance, “The Capture of Persephone” (2019), her interpretation of the myth in which Hades snatches the daughter of Zeus and spirits her away to the underworld. Conceived as one of her debut public sculptures at this year’s San Francisco Decorator Showcase (her prior commissions were mostly for private clients), Kubrick’s version of the story doesn’t emulate the Italian classicist Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s famous 1622 sculpture — now displayed at Rome’s Galleria Borghese, it depicts the moment with harrowing realism — but rather summons the kidnapping’s subliminal terror. In pale Calacatta marble smoother than skin, Kubrick layers femininely curved leaves atop one another, as if blown three feet in the air by a violent wind or gathered by an unseen hand. The piece doesn’t have a front or back, so you’re never certain how to view it; the only focal point is a suggestive hole that Kubrick bored through the middle. It could be sexual. It could represent Hades’ subterranean lair. Or it could be the void in a mother’s heart over her abducted daughter. Such sculptures “give a larger space for interpretation,” Kubrick says. “If you see a perfect image of something that’s classical realism, it doesn’t leave as much room for the imagination.”

KUBRICK, 43, WAS BORN in Guam to a Japanese mother and a Czech father. As a child, she moved to Honolulu and then to San Francisco, where she often splashed in the American sculptor Ruth Asawa’s 1976 pair of steel lotus fountains in the middle of Japantown. “I remember my father telling me, ‘A Japanese woman made these,’” Kubrick says. (Asawa’s parents immigrated from Japan.) “I used to touch it and wonder, because it’s metal, ‘How can something like that be made?’”

Determined to find out, she began apprenticing after college for the Northern California metal artist Albert Guibara, copying his models in clay, then making his molds and pouring the wax that would later be cast in bronze. Three years ago, she relocated to the Tuscan town of Pietrasanta, a marble mecca with some 25,000 residents near the Ligurian Sea, to start her own practice. Since the 16th century, the area has been for sculptors what Milan is for tailors, or Murano for glassblowers. “You go where everybody has the same passion as you,” she says.

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The roughly six months Kubrick spends there each year are monastic. After waking before sunrise, she drives a mile from her modest apartment to her studio, a sunlight-filled, dust-covered, concrete-floored, 4,300-square-foot industrial work space founded in 1995 by the renowned artigiano Massimo Galleni. Working alongside him and his artisans confers its own prestige — Kubrick had to meet the owner five times before she was invited in — and surrounds her with 10 or so other artists, though she says her aesthetic is “different from just about every sculptor here.” The room they share is crowded with figurative plaster renderings of Venus, David and Christ on the cross.

And then there’s Kubrick, completing a 4-by-5-foot abstraction called “Tides” — soon to be installed on the University of San Francisco campus — which was inspired by the waves off Hawaii but actually resembles a looping roller coaster. After sourcing the marble for the piece from one of her local dealers, she deployed a shrieking angle grinder with a spinning diamond blade to make incisions in the rock, breaking pieces away with a hammer and chisel. Then she sanded the stone, “finer and finer,” she says, until she could do her most delicate work with a pencil-size rasp: an eight-inch Italian steel file, forged by hand, with tiny teeth that eat away at the sculpture — the same type of tool used by Michelangelo.

Around noon, the sculptors break for a pranzo di lavoro (work lunch) of pasta, roasted vegetables and wine. Then it’s back to the studio until nightfall. After hours, Kubrick sometimes molds botanical forms in clay as first drafts of sorts, some of which will later become marble sculptures. She recently completed a series of 10- to 21-inch-tall blossoms that are currently on view in a group show at Ota Contemporary in Santa Fe, N.M.; if some viewers don’t recognize them immediately as flowers — if they call to mind, say, hallucinogenic artichokes — then she’ll be pleased. When she was still finding her voice as an artist, she learned to carve flowers in realistic detail. But now, she says, “I want to break away from that.”

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