Sculpture Matters: recent encounters with figuration, clay, and maverick makers

Thomas Houseago, Baby, 2009-2010, Tuf-Cal, hemp, iron rebar, wood, graphite, charcoal, 104 x 92 x 64 in / 264.2 x 233.7 x 162.6 cm, Photo: Fredrik Nilsen, courtesy of Hauser & Wirth
Thomas Houseago, Baby, 2009-2010, Tuf-Cal, hemp, iron rebar, wood, graphite, charcoal, 104 x 92 x 64 in., Photo: Fredrik Nilsen, courtesy of Hauser & Wirth
Henry Moore working on Atom Piece (Working model for Nuclear Energy) in his maquette studio in Perry Green, mid-1960s

Over the last few weeks I have encountered a rather odd collection of sculptural things: the postwar ceramic sculpture of Lucio Fontana and Fausto Melotti bursting with dynamically glazed and roughly handled surfaces, currently on view at the Nasher Sculpture CenterThe Age of Innocence, a victorian bust in three different materials by the English sculptor Alfred Drury at the Henry Moore Institute; a visit to Henry Moore’s house, studios, and now foundation at Perry Green, and most recently what I can only describe as a wonderfully insane lecture by the contemporary sculptor Thomas Houseago, which involved an increasingly drunk, cursing artist saying some surprisingly sincere, profound things about sculpture. Now this is admittedly a random selection of artists and artworks, from various historical eras, with very different intents and purposes. There is, however, a more tangible connection between these sculptors than the happenstance of my travel schedule or current research.

Installation view, showing (left to right): Alfred Drury  'The Age of Innocence' c.1897-1900, Plaster; 1901, Marble;  1906, Bronze. Courtesy Bradford Museums, Leeds Museums and Galleries (Art Gallery), Harris Museum and Art Gallery. Photo: Jerry Hardman-Jones.
Installation view from the Henry Moore Institute, showing (left to right): Alfred Drury, The Age of Innocence, c.1897-1900, Plaster; 1901, Marble; 1906, Bronze. Courtesy Bradford Museums, Leeds Museums and Galleries (Art Gallery), Harris Museum and Art Gallery. Photo: Jerry Hardman-Jones.

There was first and foremost a confrontation with figuration and a reminder of its continuing currency within sculptural practice–an aspect that has always heightened the obdurate if uncanny presence of the sculptural object. I was also struck by the commonalities in the processes of making amongst this group of sculptors, with all utilizing and celebrating the traditional means of creating a sculpture by taking a piece of matter and shaping it with their hands. The transformation of material has always been the distinguishing feature of sculptural practice, so perhaps my noticing this rather conventional practice as such is just because I have spent too many years with minimalist and post-minimalist artists of the 1960s who worked hard to efface the trace of their touch within their work. For an artist like Drury, preliminary modeling and the reproduction of a single work in materials like plaster, marble, and bronze was standard practice, but the acknowledgment of sculpture’s traditional processes does not make sure objects any less interesting when seen together. In fact such material comparison is an illumination, not just to an understanding of sculpture but also to the inherent powers of different substances to convey different tones, effects, and details within the “same” object. Continue reading “Sculpture Matters: recent encounters with figuration, clay, and maverick makers”

Empty Plinths and Changing Landscapes – Yorkshire Sculpture Park

Yinka Shonibare, Wind Sculpture, 2013. Installed at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park
Yinka Shonibare, Wind Sculpture, 2013. Installed at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park

The sculpture park is a particular type of place, a particular type of arts institution. A phenomena unique to the medium of sculpture, save perhaps for a select sort of architecture, the sculpture park is traditionally set within a bucolic, natural landscape or, on a smaller scale, framed as landscape, open air museum annex. It provides a unique if unavoidably artificial manner in which to view sculpture – out of doors, subject to the elements, and transformed (or dwarfed depending on the scale of the work) by the expanse of its surroundings. This tension–between seeing sculpture situated in such a setting and knowing it is a foreign object within that environment–is one of the things I find more intriguing about this type of venue. The awareness of institutional context never really goes away, but if done really well the sculpture park can produce transformative moments when a piece of sculpture looks like  it was always meant to be there, its form so radically altered by its situation; or in reverse, the landscape takes on a completely different character when seen through or around an object.

St Bartholomew’s Chapel, 1744. Photo courtesy of visitleeds.co.uk
St Bartholomew’s Chapel, 1744. Photo courtesy of visitleeds.co.uk

A perfect example of the sculpture park done right can be experienced at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park. Located near Wakefield, about 2o miles south of Leeds in the north of England, YSP occupies the 500 acres of the Breton Hall Estate, which was built in 1720. Continue reading “Empty Plinths and Changing Landscapes – Yorkshire Sculpture Park”