Figuring It Out

Face to Face: The Figurative Sculpture of Sean Henry (The Lightbox, Woking, 12 August-5 November 2017)

I first knowingly encountered the sculptures of Sean Henry on a day trip to Newbiggin by the Sea with the Aged P. Faced with the problem of being a north eastern coastal town — and the last pub before Norway not being necessary nor sufficient — they turned to Art and commissioned a giant double statue, Couple, to be placed in the bay, an implicit answer to whatever question was being asked by a certain northern angel.

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To Be Frink

Elisabeth Frink: The Presence of Sculpture (Djanogly Gallery, Nottingham Lakeside Arts, 25 November 2015–28 February 2016)

My sculptures of the male figure are both man and mankind. In these two categories are all the sources of all my ideas for the human figure. Man, because I enjoy looking at the male body and this has always given me and probably always will, the impetus and the energy for a purely sensuous approach to sculptural form. I like to watch a man walking and swimming and running and being. I think that my figures of men now say so much more about how a human feels than how he looks anatomically. I can sense in a man’s body a combination of strength and vulnerability — not as weakness but as the capacity to survive through stoicism or passive resistance, or to suffer or feel

One for PigeonhedOutside Caffè Nerd on Dover Street, just off Piccadilly, is a small equestrian statue, usually with a pigeon on its head. I sat by it a few times before I realised it was an Elisabeth Frink, and I confess that I don’t recall why I began to pay attention to her. There was a small show at Woking I took myself off to a couple of years ago and materials at the Beaux Arts Gallery, London.

In my mental map, British twentieth-century scuplture was dominated by three names — Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth and Eduardo Paolozzi — before we get into the Caros and the Gormleys and the more conceptual sculptors. Moore and Hepworth seem to occupy a curious middle ground between neoromanticism and modernism — shapes somewhere between the abstract and the bodily, sensual, demanding to be caressed. Paolozzi is plainly of the machine age — the aesthetics of collage and the cyborg, Lego bricks and circuit boards in bronze.

Standing ManWhilst all three are producers of solid work, Moore and Hepworth are more abstract and Paolozzi is more surreal than Frink. Frink’s sculpture has an extraordinary physicality to it. Her statues are of walking, running, jumping, flying and falling men — yeah, pretty well all men — and clearly there is tension between such movement and the fitness of bronze or concrete. Even the standing men seem to loom, arms behind their back, cock and balls hanging, solid presences, somewhere between threatening and sexualised.

Riace IIIImagine: some of these were commissioned for the headquarters of W. H. Smiths. Remember that when you try to get your free chocolate bar with a copy of The Mail on Sunday. The Walking Man became one of the Riace, named for the bronze statues found in the sea in 1972, and is in white face, one of Frink’s odd experiments in coloured bronze. Apparently her statue of a dog was coloured; the Desert Quarter (1985) bronze is white. Are these angels or demons?
Desert Quarter
She’s presented here in a curiously dialectic way; on the one had she was a child during the Second World War although she knew of the horrors of Belsen and the atomic bombs, the anxieties of the Cold War; on the other hand her public commissions are associated with the Utopianism of the Garden City and New Town movement in the post-war rebuilding. Sculpture was meant to inspire people — whether outside civic buildings or shopping centres, or in the new Coventry and Liverpool Metro Cathedrals.

Her Christ, in a gouache, is muscular, the emphasis on the physicals over the divine. There are pictures here of the crucified Christ, the body emphasised over the cross. There is a Mary and a nun, and a study for Judas, which is also known as the warrior. Her military men — the flying men, the air men — always already seem traumatised, the sculptural equivalent of post-traumatic stress syndrome. And that makes me wonder about her Judas; he betrayed with a kiss, he was paid his thirty pieces of silver, he bought the field and hung himself. Was Judas a warrior — did he fight with his demons and lose?

BirdmanThere is her Birdman, apparently commissioned for a school but thought destroyed (like her first commission, but a damaged version was found this year), a tall, gangly man, with stubs on his back, decommissioned wings perhaps, a fallen angel among men. There is her Running Man (1978), not, apparently, an athlete, but rather a fugitive from some unspecified conflict. Her Flying Men (1982) are hang gliders but seem about to cast themselves into space — inspired by one Léo Valentin (1919-56) who made his own birdlike wings in a vain attempt to fly. Is he also her Falling Man (1961)?

BoarThere are animals — lots of horses, sometimes with riders, a boar for Harlow, warthogs and dogs. Dogs whose heads you want to pat but mustn’t. There are birds, but of ill omen, her Harbinger Bird III (1961) and Warrior Bird (1953), corvids, menacing; on the other hand her eagles, often designed for pulpits and linked to the Kennedy assassination (there is also an uneasy sculpture, The Assassins, but all of them are uneasy).

And of course, there is the baboon, commissioned for London Zoo, but it’s a different version here. And there’s a water colour, apparently inspired by an Australian trip although that makes little sense, of an encounter between a man and a baboon. Apparently the baboon is unimpressed by the man.

BaboonBaboon

So her subject is man rather than woman. She may have done mother and child pairs like Hepworth and Moore, but none are here on display, and she was clearly a mother. The few female statues here are caped or cowled. Is there an avoidance of female objectification? Is her aim to objectify men? There were warrior women she could have portrayed, traumatised refugees. But clearly that was not for her.

My Darling Caro

Caro in Yorkshire (Yorkshire Sculpture Park, 18 July-1 November 2015)
Caro in Yorkshire (The Hepworth Wakefield, 18 July-1 November 2015)


As far as I can see, twentieth-century British sculpture was dominated by Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore and, whilst you would be unlikely to mistake the two, there is a sense of continuity. Both are very organic in form and were committed to sculpture in public spaces. Whilst both did work in bronze and other metals, there is a background in manual carving in wood, marble and so on. The aura of the handcrafted. Bronze, on the other hand, usually requires a foundry and experts in metal.

Since the late 1960s there has been the more conceptual — walk as sculpture, glass of water on shelf as sculpture (of a tree).

Before this, however, there was Anthony Caro (1924-2013), a generation younger than Moore — and one of his studio assistants. Caro’s early works would involve a hands on roach — lumpy bronzes, a twisted human form and drawings or painting that seem to me reminiscent of Henri Gaudier-Brzeska. But a trip to the USA in 1959 sent him down a more industrial route — large pieces of metal welded together. Whilst he was to play with bronzed surfaces — rusted, waxed and so forth — the break through works were painted in a limited range of colours.

Caro’s work in sculpture brings together painting and architecture, pushing the boundaries. Being metal, being forged, they are clearly solid and heavy, but at the same time they are often suspended or balanced, seemingly lightweight. “They’ve got an inside but they’ve got no centre,” he said of them. His Table Pieces are often suspended on the edge of tables or shelves, and presumably have a very carefully placed centre of gravity.

What he is also credited with is the disappearance of the plinth. I have a few thoughts about this to follow up, but once a huge lump of metal is placed upon the ground, the frame between world and art is wafer thin. From this comes the possibility of the texture in the grass or a pile of aggregates. Some of the work looks like a climbing frame or an adventure playground — if the Hepworth and Moore sculptures demand to be felt, than these demand to be climbed. In some cases, the sculptures offer a kind of Wendy house, but mostly there are attendants to stop you.

Across one hillside at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park there are a range of different bronzes — curves and planes, verticals and horizontals, holes and towers. Across the other side of the site are the early works, preparatory drawings (and you can see he draws figures like Moore), as well as works from across nearly fifty years. Alongside steel and bronze there is also the use of Perspex — apparently glass turned out to be unwieldy. He also sculpted in paper and plaster imitations of paper. Meanwhile the works at the Hepworth cover the period from the 1960s to his death.


I didn’t take a note of the architect, but for a period he tried to codesign a tower; unable to find the funding or whatever, he appropriated the shape as sculpture but turned it upside down. At this point I was reminded of the work of Eduardo Paolozzi, and the mosaic of machinery he explored.

I liked these works more than I expected to — there is an aesthetic to them that is pleasing as they balance the solid and the ethereal. There is space and nonspace. And whilst this may end up disappearing the artist, there’s an infection of the real world as art — the scaffolding becomes installation (indeed, Cedric Christie and others have made sculpture from scaffold poles).

All photos here

Hep Hep Hooray (Part Two to Follow)

Barbara Hepworth: Sculpture for a Modern World (Tate Britain 24 June-25 October 2015)

Hepworth plaqueI really like Barbara Hepworth’s work. It has a kind of tactility to it, a sensuousness — it cries out to be touched and caressed. I’ve been up to Wakefield and looked at the plasters and maquettes and the blue plaques, and down to St Ives to see the studio and at some point saw the hospital drawings.

So I was looking forward to this Tate overview, in the same space where they showed Henry Moore.

I’m going to do two write ups, because I want to do it justice. But this time round, I’m going to be critical whilst thinking you should really go.

Major galleries still rarely do one women shows (although note Tate Modern this spring and summer).

There’s always a danger when providing context that this takes away rather than enriches your appreciation of the materials. In the first room, there are lots of hand carved sculpture, not all by Hepworth. We’re told that one of her strengths was direct carving — inspired in this by Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, Jacob Epstein and Eric Gill, but also by the fact that the was apparently a whole lot more of this than we realised. Everyone was up to it. One missing name was Leon Underwood, whom I might well come back to, who was a tutor to Henry Moore. Was she that special?

Before she married Moore, she married Ben Nicholson and before that John Skeaping — another direct carver — and there is a room of works by Nicholson responding to hers and vice versa. I like Nicholson’s work, but, again, I’m a little worried it takes away from her. I suspect not, but.

Hepworth SculptureIn a later room there’s a documentary, Figures in a Landscape (Dudley Shaw Ashton, 1953), with Cecil Day-Lewis reading bad poetry over footage of the Cornish coast, telling us about how history and then Man has sculpted the landscape — you know that “invisible” sexism that defaults to and his? You want to scream, YOU KNOW HEPWORTH IS A WOMAN, YES? Eventually her sculptures start appearing in the landscape, and for a more you assume the apes will start worshiping them and a certain theme will appear on the soundtrack. Or you assume it’s the inspiration for Led Zeppelin’s Presence.

At the end of the show, there’s a recreation of the Rietveld Pavilion from a Dutch sculpture garden, with sculpture finally naked — up to then, more or less, everything is in vitrines. I know that hands can leave marks and grease and patina — but I don’t recall Moore’s being so glassed off. Were there ropes? It’s great to get a full 360 view of them, but it makes the exhibition a maze (where have they hidden the label this time?) and its frustration because you just wanna touch. And at the end it’s not clear if you can.

Hepworth died in 1975.

The pavilion was 1965.

Did she not sculpt for a decade? Was the later work earlier? Or was it all large scale stuff like the UN piece or the John Lewis’s one?

It just stops.

Did I miss a chronology of the artist? Okay, the exhibition guide tells you she died in a fire, but it still feel a little off-key.

The really sad thing is there is fantastic stuff here, but I’m not sure justice is done to it. I will go back, I suspect in late August now, having read the catalogue, and say more.

Nor Any Drop To Drink

Canterbury’s Sidney Cooper Gallery is one I overlook all too often, unforgivably. It’s a single room – well, a single room with a small room with a screen, situated on the high street at the west station end of town. I guess because it is so close, and so small, I don’t make the same kind of effort as I have with, say, Mascall’s Gallery at a school in Paddock Wood.

 

Still, I’ve seen a number of interesting shows over the years there, and Louise Bourgeois is coming up. (Colour me sceptical though as I like her sculptures and her narratives, but her drawings are a little bit “I’m-art-because-I’m-drawn-by-an-artist”.)

 

The current exhibition, which ends Saturday, is Tania Kovats, whose work I saw either at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park or Jupiter Land. File under sculpture, the work I saw before was a number of glass bottles of water from rivers around Britain, in a boathouse Iver a lake. The work here is similar – several hundred bottles of water from all the seas of the world. Ther is a laminated list of the bottles, and it’s notable, having crowd sourced the collection, that some seas are more popular than others. There is clearly a row of North Sea samples – although the rackage prevents you from being clear which is which, short of a methological counting. On the face of it, sea water is sea water is sea water, although the is clearly some settlement in some of the containers. The Dead Sea didn’t stand out. The obsessive in me would like to se a chemical analysis of the water – salt concentration and trace elements….

 

Meanwhile le there are a number of sculptures of layers, dramatising the impact of pressure upon stratification and relations of basalt. Perhaps the most striking is a slack and White coicture that is abstract in nature, and I suspect the impact of salt water on something, but I didn’t note down what. There’s a short film, uncredited but I’m guessing the work of Ben Rowley.