A work from Gesso Cocteau's "Prayer Series."

Gesso Cocteau’s 20-year retrospective at the Classic Art Gallery in Palm Desert was full of works that were lyrical, intense and introspective—works which demonstrated Cocteau’s ample contributions to contemporary figurative art.

Some 100-plus people attended the retrospective that all but filled every room in the gallery. There was an almost equal division between bronzes and drawings, with Cocteau’s works demonstrating respect for the unique qualities of these distinct mediums.

Bronzes by Cocteau, a renowned artist who calls the valley home, are found in private and public collections worldwide; her public commission, “Endless Celebration,” located in Bellevue, Wash., is the tallest free-standing cast sculpture in the United States, standing some 51 feet tall.

Her sculptures included in the show range in size. Some are small, suitable for a shelf or desktop, while life-sized and even larger pieces are better suited to an outdoor garden.

“With my sculpture, I strive to create pieces that have a soul and are ‘timeless,’” she told me.

Cocteau’s sculptures present a oneness and a discernable flow. The better pieces consist of at least two figures; often, just a single foot, usually en pointe, connects to the base. In doing so, she replaces heaviness with gracefulness. The effect is furthered as Cocteau tailors each base to the figures above. This aesthetic is found in “Love’s Divine,” which is on display at the gallery. By affixing only one figure’s foot to the base, Cocteau depicts the two floating figures interacting in air. Her technique produces tremendous dimensionality and a sense of movement—confirmed when looking at a sculpture’s shadows on a wall or the floor.

Cocteau’s commitment to drawing has always helped her succeed as a sculptor; however, her return to drawing as a focused voice in her creative repertoire is relatively recent.

“Drawing is part of me,” she says. “And while I’ve been drawing seriously for a long time, it became very personal after my mother’s death. She introduced me to drawing many decades ago. Drawing became an outlet to work through the loss.”  

After conducting her own photo shoots, Cocteau creates her self-portraits from the resulting images, employing a limited set of tools (i.e., paper, graphite, pastels). Recognizable pencil strokes and shading define her figures.

While most of Cocteau’s largest drawings are no longer on display at Classic Art Gallery, a good number of her smaller drawings are still up—and these intimate drawings display the same intensity and introspection that dominate her life-sized and oversized drawings.

While an outward lyricism dominates her sculptures, her self-portraits are pensive. There is only figure, no ground; Cocteau seems to float in space, lost or perhaps alienated. Without becoming trite or saccharine, the artist assumes almost identical meditative poses in her “Prayer Series”; one of these works remained on display at the gallery as of press time.

Cocteau’s most powerful picture, “Drawing #5,” is larger than life. The paper, ragged across the top and bottom, sets the mood. (Unfortunately, “Drawing #5” is located at her studio and not the gallery; however, visitors to the gallery can see a picture of it and Cocteau’s other works, or can get a glimpse at www.gessococteau.com/portfolio/drawings.)

With this drawing, Cocteau focuses on her body from the neck to her feet. Other than a slight tilt of her legs and torso toward the viewer, the artist sits in profile. Her positioning of arms and legs creates a complex composition. Reminiscent of several John Sloan’s drawings, “Drawing #5” shows the artist undressed; however, the drawing is too modest to be considered a nude. Cocteau included elements of a floor, differentiating “Drawing #5” from her other large and oversized drawings. By doing so, she creates depth—making this a transition piece.

Cocteau told me that the recent retrospective marked a turning point in her career.

“In addition to continuing my work in bronze, future pieces will likely be completed in some other metal, like steel,” she said. “I suspect that my drawings will be less introspective. By including other objects, they will take on a narrative.

“I, too, am looking forward to seeing how my work evolves.”

The works of Gesso Cocteau are on display at Classic Art Gallery, 73399 El Paseo, in Palm Desert. The gallery is open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Monday through Saturday; and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., Sunday. For more information, call 760-568-3355, or visit www.classicartgallery.com.

Victor S. Barocas is a photographer, author and educator/business coach. Based in CathedralCity, he can be reached at Victor@VictorsVisions.com. Right: “Da Brava Madre” (The Good Mother”).