Thursday, December 20, 2012

Peter Burke on Sculpture and Reproductive Technologies

West Country-based sculptor Peter Burke has delivered a TEDx talk in Bradford-on-Avon, which includes not only a brief history of the ancient use of technology in the making of sculpture but also an insight into Peter's own creative processes.

As his engaging talk reveals, he is as happy crunching raw metal with an industrial loader as he is working with digital CAD-CAM technologies. Thanks to Peter for alerting me to his talk, which can also be seen on The Sculpture Agency website here.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Conflux: Sean Henry at Salisbury Cathedral

For some reason I forgot to post this catalogue text online during the exhibition, but although the exhibition is now over I'm posting it anyway...just for the record. Better late than never. Most of the works referred to can be viewed on Sean's website here.

Sean Henry at Salisbury Cathedral

It's hard to imagine a more appropriate environment in which to view a representative selection of sculptures by Sean Henry than at Salisbury Cathedral, one of Britain's finest Gothic buildings. The cathedral's location at the confluence of five rivers suggested the title for the exhibition, Conflux, which also alludes to the coming together of the sacred building and the anonymous secular subjects of Henry's sculptures.

Henry's work has its roots in a deep empathy with the European tradition of polychrome sculpture, for a long time considered unfashionable in relation to the dominant neoclassical taste for uncoloured white marble or monochrome bronze. However, coloured sculpture is now enjoying something of a renaissance of public appreciation and Henry can take a good deal of the credit for that revival. Judging by the enthusiastic crowds flocking through Salisbury Cathedral for the duration of the exhibition, Conflux represents a milestone in that resurgence of interest. 

During the Middle Ages, cathedrals were the focal point of the community, a meeting place for people of all classes and occupations. The so-called  'Medieval Miracle' — the erection of numerous cathedrals across Europe from 1050 to 1350 — was the product not only of visionary architects and skilled craftsmen, but of the labour of the common people. Even the unskilled peasantry were often conscripted into hauling materials to the building site and undertaking other rudimentary tasks. This period also marked the emergence of the so-called ymagier tailleur, the carver of small images and later of more monumental sculptures. The architectural and free-standing works these medieval craftsmen produced — which adorned both the interior and exterior of the building — helped the faithful negotiate their passage through the cathedral, strengthening their faith as they went.

However, while Europe's cathedrals have long memorialised saints and other figures from Christian doctrine, the common workers whose humble toil helped bring these magnificent projects to fruition are long since forgotten. In this regard, Henry's works fulfil an important function, momentarily deflecting our gaze from the more familiar sacred objects to settle upon secular figures that subtly evoke aspects of the cathedral's ancient past.

Man of Honour (1999), for example, quite literally elevates a contemporary orange-clad labourer to the top of a column doubtless once occupied by a blessed saint. Meanwhile, the figure in kneepads, entitled One Step Forward (2004) might stand as a modern representative of the multitude of medieval stonemasons whose sweat and toil helped raise the building in 1238 (Salisbury still boasts the tallest spire of any British cathedral). Similarly, the figure entitled Seated Man (2011) — a middle-aged bearded figure dressed in a leather waistcoat and collarless shirt, his gnarled hands clasped in a gesture approaching tentative prayer — could be a medieval artisan pausing for a moment's rest in the cool of the cathedral's cloister garden. Framed against the gothic tracery of the lancet arches, he becomes a signifier of the unchanging essence of medieval cathedrals everywhere.
It is in that dialogue between the sacred and the secular that the power of the Conflux project resides, helping us not only to appreciate Henry's innovative approach to figure-making, but at the same time prompting a fresh appraisal of Salisbury Cathedral's indigenous sculpture. Nowhere is this creative dialogue more marked than in the contrast between Henry's sleeping figure in Folly (The Other Self), located on the cathedral green outside, and Salisbury's own tomb effigy of the English nobleman and military commander William Longespée, 3rd Earl of Salisbury (1176-1226) inside the cathedral.

Through its open structure, Henry's Folly (The Other Self) invites physical engagement as the viewer enters the room to speculate on the identity and thought processes of the slumbering and standing figures within. As with all Henry's work, the scale of the sculptures in Folly (The Other Self) is critical, providing a defamiliarising counterpoint to the empathy triggered by their naturalistic colouring. At certain times of day, the roof members throw shadows across the room, subtly evoking the ribbed vaults of the cathedral interior. Even the chair suspended from the ceiling offers an oblique reference to its location here for the word cathedral stems from kathédrā — the Greek word for chair (and the source of the English word chair). Located on the cathedral green, Folly (The Other Self) provides both a physical and thematic link between the town, the local community, and the cathedral.

Cathedrals have always provided a calm sanctuary away from the vicissitudes of the world outside and during the medieval period this function was extended in ways we might today find surprising. People were allowed to sleep in cathedrals, for example, so the idea of a recumbent figure such as Henry's Man Lying on His Side (2000) seems particularly apt in this setting.

Many of Henry's sculptures focus on the overlooked symbolic power of the ordinary, capturing the viewer's attention through simple shifts in scale. To this he adds a layer of psychological intensity by showing his figures in states of private meditation. This aspect of his work takes on a wholly different significance in the cathedral environment where, for example, the downward focused gaze of the figure known as Standing Man (2007) assumes a quality of engagement that we normally associate with saints looking benevolently down on the faithful. This is not to suggest that the cathedral context makes the secular seem sacred, although it adds an ineffable aura of spirituality to these very contemporary subjects; rather it reminds us of how effective were the communicative strategies employed by ancient craftsmen in their mission to serve the church though their art.

Similarly, The Duke of Milan (1999), his head partially obscured by the hood of his puffer jacket, recalls one of the most celebrated polychrome figures in Spanish religious art — Pedro de Mena's St. Francis Standing in Ecstasy (1663) in Toledo Cathedral. Just as the artists of the ancient past and indeed of seventeenth-century Spain used naturalism to deepen the devotional engagement of the pious onlooker, so Henry uses realism to deepen our identification with the figures he has placed in and around the cathedral. They underline what it means to be alive and yet at the same time in this setting they function as memento mori — a reminder that all things must pass.

Another sense of time passing comes in the disappearance of many of the cathedral's original sculptures, although many were happily replaced during the nineteenth century and some indeed more recently. In the medieval period, cathedral sculptures would have been naturalistically painted. Today it is hard for us to imagine how these buildings might have looked with their original polychromy in place. Henry's Man with Cup, standing comfortably atop a column on the exterior of the building holding his coffee cup as if it were some saintly attribute, contrasts with the monochrome stone figures of St. Thomas of Canterbury, St. Edmund the Martyr and St Alphege raised in niches just around the corner on the West Front. These are nineteenth century replacements by James Redfern, left unpainted to match the dominant colour of the building after centuries of weathering removed the original polychromy. Henry's work allows us to dream a little and envision the building as it might have looked in the mid-thirteenth century.

The two-figure group called Sic Transit Gloria Mundi (1999/2011), located in the north transept during the exhibition, also alludes to the transience of human life. The Latin phrase, meaning 'Thus passes the glory of the world', might have made an appropriate title for the exhibition. Coincidentally, it was inspired by an encounter Henry witnessed on the steps of a church in Italy. Here in Salisbury Cathedral, like its other modern counterparts, it takes on a subtle new resonance.


Interesting TImes: Sculpture at the Harold Martin Botanical Gardens, Leicester University

The following is the catalogue text by Tom Flynn for the 2012 Leicester University sculpture display at the Harold Martin Botanical Gardens in Leicester.

"May you live in interesting times" — The ancient Chinese proverb is traditionally considered a curse rather than a blessing and thus provided a timely and thought-provoking theme for this year's University of Leicester sculpture display (which closes on 28 October).

Curated by British artist Almuth Tebbenhoff, the participating artists responded with great imagination, some interpreting the theme to reflect on interesting events or imagery that has influenced their work, others using it as a trigger for more acerbic commentary on the current state of the world in which we live. All, however, contributed work that is rich in allusion and metaphor, while leaving space for critical interpretation on the part of the viewer.

Few would doubt that we are indeed living in interesting times, although whether the conditions of the present historical moment are negatively interesting in the ancient Chinese sense or merely evidence of a significant transition in human affairs will surely depend on one's philosophical bias. Uncertainty is always interesting. As that other visionary philosopher, Donald Rumsfeld, once remarked, "There are known knowns; and we know there are known unknowns; but there are also unknown unknowns…there are things we do not know we don't know." This obscure utterance was surely designed to foreclose moral inquiry, and I quote it here for good reason (how often has Rumsfeld made it into a sculpture catalogue?). It neatly encapsulates the opaque networks of power that in large part have led to our current predicament. With Europe teetering on the brink of an economic abyss, one senses a steady if invisible multiplication of the "things we do not know we don't know." Yet was it ever any different?

One thing we do know is that despite the failure of governments to rein in the more malevolent aspects of late capitalism, and notwithstanding the creeping financialisation of the art market, it is the individual artist who, through his or her gift, still offers the hope of replacing the curse with a blessing. Bankers, politicians and billionaire speculators are often considered the main architects of the present questionable state of affairs, but our own rampant commodity fetishism and the steady descent into the miasma of social networking have also helped create these 'interesting times'. 

Ever sensitive to the Zeitgeist, sculptor Almuth Tebbenhoff has curated a selection of works that are wide-ranging in approach and subject matter. There is great beauty here — often achieved through the transformation of diverse materials and the imaginative exploration of form through skill and craftsmanship. But there is also evidence of a different sort of commitment — a faith in the capacity of sculpture to take us to places in our minds that would not be accessible by other means. Some of these works will sooth and reassure at a time when reassurance might seem in short supply; and many of the works here will pull you up short, prod you and make you think. If there was an overriding curatorial intention — or perhaps aspiration would be a better word — it was that the collective ambience would be sharp-edged and savoury, idiosyncratic and surprising. In the event it turns out to be all of these and more.
The UK is particularly rich in sculpture parks, albeit of somewhat uneven quality. These rural kunsthalles come into their own in the summer months, offering an escape from the urban grind and a chance to see how sculpture interacts with the landscape. It is always a tricky relationship to manage. The annual Leicester exhibition provides an opportunity to make a few emphatic interventions into a quintessentially English garden and the University of Leicester's exhibition team are again to be applauded for their creative and open-minded approach.

The Arts and Crafts atmosphere of the houses and grounds is a tempting prospect for an adventurous curator. James Stockdale Harrison's (1874-1952) four handsome Edwardian houses sit in a landscape of comforting domesticity — neat beds, rolling lawns, and trimmed hedges. It would be easy for the University to adopt an over-protective stance towards the botanic gardens and surrounding estate, but experience shows that the site is robust enough to embrace even the most assertive installations. Some sculptures take to this environment with ease, entering into a harmonious dialogue with the surrounding trees and walkways. Other works are more disobedient, challenging nature's authority with a certain urban brashness. It is the contrasts between these various encounters that make this year's display so memorable.

The Harold Martin gardens are a social space. The grounds are open to the public, while the houses, once occupied by members of the Leicester gentry, are now halls of residence for university students. It's hard to imagine a more sympathetic environment in which to study.

Soon after entering the garden you may encounter Mary Bourne's Gathering Dishes lying beneath the trees. The gentle concavity of these sandstone discs is just sufficient to contain the ambient vegetation that might fall from the trees above or, (given that this is England), capture the gentle rain that droppeth from the sky upon the place beneath. Poised between the purely sculptural and the practical function of collecting and gathering, Bourne's dishes hint at a mythic event long past — a dryads' déjeuner sur l'herbe, perhaps, or some archaic ritual of which these receptacles are the surviving material evidence. The soft buff colour of the Clashach sandstone from which the dishes are made also connotes something of the classical past. One might not have been surprised to unearth them during an archaeological dig on a Greek island. The Clashach quarries on the Moray Firth coast of Scotland (where Bourne lives and works) were offering up their stone in abundance from 1846 until the 1940s — the very period that Stockdale Harrison was designing the houses in these grounds. That is a happy coincidence; it also prompts a deeper contemplation of materials and the cyclical nature of landscape.

Bourne's practice constitutes an ongoing meditation on geological time. Her use of stone allows for a direct connection with the earth and its changing patterns and visual rhythms. The work entitled Regeneration, located here not far from her sandstone dishes, is a simple arrangement of burnished black granite 'buds' peeping up from the ground. Small variations in the size of the stone elements impart a sense of slow organic movement, as if a deep seam of granite were poised to bloom. A symbol of optimistic growth? Or fleurs du mal? Bourne herself has commented, "The past may be known and the future in doubt, but the appearance of both can change when viewed through different emotional filters. Uncertainty and challenge belong in our lives as much as the capacity to perceive beauty and experience hope."

Halima Cassell's work is concerned with surface patterning in the buildings and objects around us and how, when geometrical designs are cut into natural materials they have the propensity to structurally alter the underlying form. She seeks what she describes as "dynamic tension" in the patterns she creates by manipulating the planes and facets integral to the work. "The stresses that this creates help me to achieve the maximum impact within the overall design and also to push the boundaries of the material to its limits."

The relationship between surface and internal structure has been a core preoccupation of sculpture since antiquity and has been rehearsed in the art and artefacts of many cultures. Refracted through the prism of her Anglo-Asian roots (Cassell was born in Pakistan, raised in Manchester and lives in Blackburn, Lancashire), her fascination with architectural geometry, Islamic design and African patterning techniques has inspired a body of work that is rich in historical references and cross-cultural inflections. In the bronze work entitled Crystalline Tower, three stacked circular forms have been partially hollowed out and their interior and external surfaces enlivened by fan-shaped incisions. The inside of the concave discs are vaguely suggestive of the vaulted ceilings in Gothic cathedrals or folds of drapery, but the work also hints at shapes and patterns normally associated with cell biology or astronomy. Cassell's technical interventions have infused these simple circular forms with a powerful dynamic energy.

A similar approach can be seen in her piece entitled Full Fathom in hand-carved, unglazed clay. Here the deep planar cutting results in a surface bristling with complex interlocking surfaces that evoke origami paper-folding or ice crystals under a microscope. The title — and the sense of an internal force about to break and roll — prompts thoughts of a marine swell, or perhaps, (given its snug seating within a stone base) a coral form lying on the seabed.

Much of Cassell's work seems to draw on the structural correspondence between patterns found in science and nature and which are imprinted on our shared cultural imagination. Down through history, we have brought these fractal forms into our built environments and onto the surfaces of the objects with which we surround ourselves. We derive pleasure from the tactile skin of the material world and Cassell's sculpture beckons us towards a bodily interaction with pattern and shape. Her tall pillar called Fan Construction in cold cast iron mimics the sort of carved wood column that might support an ancient Eastern temple, its surface patinated by centuries of human touch. Architectural columns are, of course, genealogically related to trees and the crisp fan-shaped panels decorating the surface of this piece rhyme with the bark of an exotic species. Meanwhile, the three brick and steel elements of Sacred Conversation borrow a term from art history traditionally used to describe a grouping of figures in a painting or sculpture — often the Virgin and Child flanked by saints. The surface patterning used here — ovolo mouldings, stylised palmettes, and a strange 'saddle'-like form on the upper surface — although seemingly influenced by familiar ornamental motifs, add up to an idiosyncratic formal grammar of Cassell's own invention. Another work in brick clay — Thistle Head — looks entirely at home here in the botanic gardens. It reminds us of the interconnectedness of art and the natural world identified, most notably, by the German biologist Ernst Haeckel in his great opus of the 1870s: Kunst Formen der Natur (Art Forms in Nature).

The work of Ann Christopher is grounded in an exacting approach to every aspect of sculpture, from her original embodiment of the idea or concept in material form in the studio, right through to the complex technical processes of the bronze foundry that give the work its final identity. Her meticulous attention to detail, results in objects of extraordinary beauty and precision, the inspiration for which is drawn from her visual memory. The work included here — a totemic bronze entitled Line from Three Journeys — resulted from three separate visual experiences, which Christopher remembers as, "the curved trunk of a young birch tree in my parents' garden, the strata and rock pools from a beach on the Isle of Skye, and the powerful shape of the City Corp building — a skyscraper in New York — all visited within a year." Only on completing the work did she realise that it represented "an amalgamation of my interesting times in those places." There is also a faint echo of a disintegrating classicism about this work, which inadvertently makes for a wry comment on an 'interesting' shift in the global axis in recent times from the hegemony of Mediterranean culture towards the developing world of Asia.

Katherine Gili is represented by three works in the current show — Angoulȇme, Ripoll and Serrata, all in forged steel. Over her long career Gili has demonstrated an unswerving commitment to abstraction. Her work reveals the extent to which sculpture, even in its most non-referential and non-representational form, is always in an important sense about the body and the body's dynamic potentialities. Through the objects she makes she seeks to create "a unique and heightened experience of the physical, fully expressed in three dimensional space." The three works included here seem suggestive of bodily movement while eschewing the orthodox vocabulary of figurative sculpture. The spaces formed between the turning, twisting members are as critical in creating a sense of volume as the solid struts and flat surfaces from which the work is created. Those spaces go on forever. We're apt to forget that what connects us so intimately and corporeally to sculpture, whether it be abstract or representational in form, is its three-dimensional occupation of the same space we ourselves inhabit. That is at the core of our deep identification with sculpture in all its forms. Strangely, although motionless, Gili's lively compositions seem to writhe in the air. Serrata has an acrobatic energy, while Ripoll is more than a little reminiscent of the great marble Laocoön — Neptune one of the most famous and influential works of antiquity.

The work of Jessica Harrison aims to "reinforce emotional pathways between external sensual communications and internal experiences" and her recent excursion into stone is an important factor in realising that aspiration. The piece entitled The Fold draws on her awareness of stone as "a material made up of millions of layers of skin through which run veins, fractures and vibration, a living thing that has grown through immense compression, as susceptible and fragile to the changing environment as we are." The approach she has taken might be read as a genuflection to her material's antiquity, endowing this massive slab of Kilkenny limestone with fleshy folds. The result could be a fragment of a colossal antique statue of a corpulent god or a fossilised mastodon dug from the ice. More importantly Harrison has imparted a sensuality to this material that stems from our immediate identification with its corporeality. It is a profoundly sculptural object that speaks to our most distant ancestry.

For many European citizens, the 'interesting times' still unfolding will be regarded as interesting for all the wrong reasons. For Greeks, Spaniards, the Irish, and countless others here in the UK too, the economic downturn is not just mildly discombobulating, but represents the world turned upside down. While Sean Henry's work has never sought to offer topical political commentary, it takes on a wry new significance in this context. Henry's interest in 'realist' sculpture can be traced back to his discovery, during an extended European study trip, of the polychrome saints that populate churches and cathedrals in Italy, Spain and elsewhere. He subsequently used that knowledge and experience to fashion his own vocabulary of representation which gains much of its power not only from the bodily realism at which he is now highly skilled, but from the psychological intensity he imparts to his figures. It is one thing to make a sculpture that looks like a human figure, but to make that figure appear to be thinking is an altogether different thing. Henry's sculptures are not realist in the photographic sense; his figures are often marginally larger or smaller than human scale and their surfaces speak of their origins as made things. Yet somehow they emanate something very close to a human presence. Walking Man strides forward with a fierce and self-contained sense of purpose, eyes fixed on the path ahead. One would hesitate to interrupt this figure's determined progress along that line. Man With Potential Selves (III), meanwhile, might have hypnotised himself into a parallel, horizontal universe. He floats before us, barefoot, hand casually on hip, seemingly meditating on an alternative reality. He is dressed in artisanal clothes — a donkey jacket and combat trousers, suspended in a dreamlike state, contemplating what? — our interesting times, perhaps?

Even between its annual sculpture displays, the visual pleasures of the botanic gardens are numerous and varied. There is an abundance of rare and exotic plants and trees to be enjoyed here, many of which have sculptural characteristics of their own. Simon Hitchens' work integrates itself into this natural arena with consummate ease. His interest in materials and the relationships between different surfaces and textures can be seen in the work entitled In the Eye of the Beholder — a striking encounter between a limestone monolith and the mirrored surface of a stainless steel screen. The relationship between the two elements is enriched by the colour of the garden vegetation reflected in the screen. The reflection enriches our visual experience of the work as we move around it and see ourselves and our surroundings incorporated into the work. Through its elegant formal economy, Hitchens' sculpture enhances our emotional response to the shape and texture of materials.

One of the few works to ponder the animal kingdom in this year's exhibition is Brigitte Jurack's Glizzit, a small flock of brass-covered decoy pigeons. Today, outside the specialised world of pigeon-fancying and pigeon-training, pigeons are likely to be treated as something of a menace. The feral variety continues to test the patience of municipal authorities wherever these birds appear in any number. Thus it is easy to overlook the enduring symbolic significance of the pigeon or dove (or, more properly, birds of the family Columbidae), from the dove sent out by Noah to the emblem of peace designed by Picasso in 1949 (Picasso's daughter Paloma was named after the Spanish word for dove). Jurack's delightful work restores some of the emblematic value of these birds through the simple expediency of bedizening some plastic decoy models with brass leaf. She quotes from psalm 68 — "When flying in the sunlight, their wings looked like silver and their plumage like gold" — and invites us to imagine this small flock taking to the air above Leicester, lit by the evening sun.

Jurack is also the creator of one of the more oblique comments on the 'Interesting Times' theme of this year's display. We are often told that the world is now run by economists. One of the ways they like to express themselves is through the simplifying graphic language of the pie chart. Jurack's ceramic work entitled Distribution of Wealth transposes the  economist's power point presentation into sculptural form, presenting us with a pie evenly distributed (reality, needless to say, is rarely so equitable). As she reminds us, it also evokes the colourful wooden building blocks designed by Friedrich Froebel (1782-1852), which subsequently became a staple of creative play in the kindergarten. Here it takes on a new sculptural significance. "The undulated surface reflects the subtle changes of light in a quiet voice," Jurack explains. "Here the wealth of potentiality depends on levels of daylight, humidity and viewpoint. As such the sculpture mimics the surface of water rather than that of a pie chart."

The curator of this year's Leicester sculpture display, Almuth Tebbenhoff, works across a range of materials and techniques. She is skilled in clay modelling, marble carving and welding in steel. Her own contribution to the exhibition, the painted steel work entitled Open Pillar, comprises four vertical, angled steel ribbons, united at their bases by diagonal cross-members. There is a quivering uncertainty to these lines drawn in space. They rise into the air, terminating at a point high above our heads, but the imagination extends them up and on to infinity. It might function here as an apt visual metaphor for our precarious times. Tebbenhoff describes the work as "a container for a most precious substance — ‘Nothingness’."

It is always exciting at outdoor sculpture exhibitions to come across one or two works that have been hewn from the mountain and worked with human hands into startling new forms. Few things are more visually rewarding than seeing a recalcitrant material like marble yield to the sculptor's creative energy. This year, Alena Matejka's Wall of Wind is an example of that process. An imposing slab of Carrara marble has been carved with diagonal bands of cross-woven ribbons to form a lattice-work screen, each intersection pierced to form an irregular aperture. Matejka worked her Wall of Wind in the Tuscan town of Pietrasanta where artists have been carving marble since the Renaissance, collaborating with local artisan craftsmen to bring stone from the surrounding quarries before transforming it in the studio. Here Matejka has used a range of drilling and carving techniques to give the stone a pillowy softness that belies its true weight and mass. It recalls the elaborate screens made for Italian churches of the Byzantine Empire that used interlaced strapwork and other forms of decorative abstraction. The unfinished edges of the slab create a sense of it being a fragment from a much larger panel, although how large is left to our imagination.   

The work of Eilis O'Connell is also rooted in a keen instinct for sculpture's core preoccupations with shape, volume, mass, the relationship between interior and exterior, and so on. The piece she has contributed here — Carapace, in stainless steel and hand-woven stainless steel cable — while visually pleasing from any angle, nevertheless invites us to walk a circle around it in order to comprehend its shape and volume. Even then, however, like a Möbius strip whose one continuous flat surface swings back upon itself through three dimensions, neither end nor beginning are clearly assimilable but rather all of a piece. It's hard to conceive of a more succinct way of visualising the mystery of human life than this strange, shimmering pod.

One of the most enriching aspects of this year's display is its wealth of unfamiliar materials. Atsuo Okamoto's Forest Planet 1 & 2 — two bizarre biomorphic objects formed from basalt glacial erratic boulders — seem part rock and part calcified animal organ. From their pierced, pitted surfaces sprout truncated tubular tendrils vaguely suggestive of veins or arteries. Okamoto's principal concern is with the natural integrity of stone and with the relationship of stone to the human and geographic environment. The erratic boulders used here probably originated from ice flows crossing Scotland millions of years ago. Their deep antiquity allows Okamoto to meditate on universal concepts of space and time. His boulders might have landed here from a distant planet. "A star is a perfect, strong shape with its unique personality and simultaneously natural form," he says. "Although solid, the centre connects with its surrounding universe. It is like a sphere yet not a geometric sphere. I work on ‘my star’ with these shapes in mind."

Keith Rand has carved his own personal sculptural language using wood in combination with paint and other materials. Witness — a sinuous, free-standing vertical form in oak, lead and rusted copper on a slate stone base — has a numinous presence, hovering in the threshold zone between a natural form and a made thing. The extraordinary care he bestows upon his materials lends his sculpture a kind of priestly majesty. Witness is a welcoming and tactile totem whose verticality prompts us to read it as a body of sorts and yet it retains a contradictory otherness that marks a boundary that cannot be crossed.

Not everything in this year's exhibition immediately announces itself as sculpture, but that will make discovery all the more rewarding. The work submitted by Mikey Georgeson and Paul Tecklenberg is nestling in plain sight. Their Avian Intelligence is a series of small bird boxes dispersed around the botanic gardens and whose real purpose will only be discovered on close examination. Georgeson and Tecklenberg have responded to this year's theme with dry wit. The work requires us to suspend the restraint that might normally keep us at a respectful distance from a bird's little wooden house. On peering through the hole we won't spy a nestling tit, but rather a photographic image that overlays views of London with views of Doha, the capital Qatar, currently laying muscular claim to become the cultural capital of the Gulf States. We are already in interesting times, but Qatar's thrusting effort to switch the geopolitical axis will make matters more interesting still.

Recent economic developments have come, for many, like a bolt from the blue, upsetting what seemed like the natural order of things. As human beings we crave equilibrium and the lack of it tends to be interesting in all the wrong ways. Richard Trupp's The Juggernaut of Nought provides an emphatic interruption to the bucolic tranquillity of the botanic gardens. Trupp's work is as architectural in its intentions as it is sculptural. His welded steel wedge (he makes these massive things in his studio) draws much of its punctuating power from its relation to the nearby buildings. It is a compelling installation, for while (while remove) this juggernaut's direction of travel seems clear enough, we can only ponder the forces that might have propelled it here. Just thank your lucky stars you weren't lying on the lawn reading Proust when it landed. 

Nick Turvey can always be relied upon to pick up the gauntlet whenever it is thrown with conviction. His response to the brief is arguably the most direct and uncompromising and is all the more stimulating for that. Both his installations here — Everything is under control and Doing what has to be done — draw on the visual rhetoric of stealth and prohibition that seems to define much of what is done in our name. Both works symbolise a dialectic of power and powerlessness, of reassurance and doubt. Turvey's current work is also informed by a concern with a broader creative project that seeks to make 'sculpture' that is immersive and which engages the viewer through social means rather than through more conventional modes of communication. "My question is: how to make reality rather than representation or abstraction, activating physical and social space, in scenarios that include the audience?"

In his bronze Emperor, William Tucker draws on the ancient tradition of colossal statues, fragments of which are integral to the object landscape of many cultures, particularly in the Mediterranean (the colossal head of the emperor Constantine, familiar to visitors to the Capitoline Museum in Rome, has intimidated artists since the Renaissance). The extent to which we have absorbed that long tradition into our common visual sensibility is tested in Tucker's work. Some visitors to the botanic gardens will wander past Emperor and mistake it as a work of pure abstraction. Others taking the time to encircle it and peruse its contours are more likely to unlock its visual codes. Cybele — the ancient Phrygian earth mother, worshipped in antiquity in the form of a sacred stone, looks similarly at home here, reminding us of the chthonic lineage of all sculpture.

The sculpture of David Worthington is rooted in a deep respect for stone. The forms he imparts to his work often evolve from his research into the materials, their regional origin and their mythical and cultural resonances. The work he is showing here — entitled Black Sun — is made from a stone called dolorite from Clee Hill near Ludlow in Shropshire. Worthington discovered a certain occult significance to the location (which appears in the Mappa Mundi) and which has generated local legends of witchcraft and magic. Dolorite — known in Shropshire as  Dhustone — is the same igneous rock of which the earth's core is formed. On polishing it assumes a dazzling black shine — hence Worthington's title. The notion of a black sun provides another fitting image for an exhibition seeking poetic responses to interesting times.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

British sculpture thriving everywhere

Helaine Blumenfeld battling
with the stone at Pietrasanta
The global economy may be poised on a knife edge, but it's been another great year for British sculpture.

I've just received news from London sculpture dealer Robert Bowman that one of his most successful and popular artists, the internationally acclaimed Helaine Blumenfeld (Hon. OBE), has won the prestigious commission to produce a large-scale outdoor work for the new 'Lancasters' apartment development in Hyde Park. The 3m high work, which Helaine has already begun roughing out in Carrara marble at Studio Sem in Pietrasanta, Tuscany (left), is entitled Tempesta and will be installed in front of the Grade II listed facade of the Lancasters in Spring 2012. We extend our congratulations to Helaine and wish her well for the final stages of the work.

Nick Turvey's work on
exhibition at The Print Room
It was a huge pleasure recently to see a group of works by British artist Nick Turvey displayed in The Print Room's new space in Notting Hill. This enabled Nick, who recently completed an RBS marble-carving Bursary in Pietrasanta, to show a number of related pieces in different materials, including household jelly (yes, the edible kind), and some of his recently completed works in marble. Nick and I held a public Q&A at the gallery to coincide with the show, which provided an enjoyable opportunity to talk about his recent time in Tuscany and to explore some of the ideas that underpin his practice. The works looked marvellous in the beautifully-lit upstairs space at the Print Room.

Piers Secunda's Taliban Bullet Holes
panels at Aubin Gallery
British artist Piers Secunda has received rave reviews for his recent Afghan Bullet Holes and Crude Oil Silkscreen exhibition (left) at the Aubin Gallery in London's Redchurch Street, with art book publishers Phaidon describing the work as "the most directly inspired pieces of art we've seen on the subject of the Afghan conflict." Piers travelled to Afghanistan to make casts of bullet holes left in walls and other surfaces after gun battles in Kabul in order to "make a record of the physical manifestations of the Taliban's activities." The result was an extraordinary series of cast panels that despite their documentary genesis have a strange kind of neoclassical elegance. It's refreshing to see artists tackling the topic of war, particularly at a time when so much contemporary art seems to be conspiring with the shiny surfaces of consumerism. You can see Piers talking about the Afghan Bullet Hole project here.

Colin Figue, recent work (a proposal)
Portugal-based British sculptor Colin Figue writes to tell me of his recent visit to the Mayan archaeological sites in Belize. Unsurprisingly, Colin has returned inspired and I know what he means. Having myself climbed up and around the Mayan sites in the Yucatan I know why the art and architecture of the region exerted such an impact on Henry Moore and a host of other European artists, and continues to do so. Colin has sent me a picture of one of his recent works whose simple abstract elements suggest an amplified rephrasing of the bowl lying in the lap of the great Chac Mool at Chichen Itza. One of Colin's outdoor works is destined for a park in Belmopan, capital of Belize. For more information about his work, contact him through his web link here.

Mark Richards, Gordon Highlanders
commemorative statue
, Aberdeen

HRH Prince Charles congratulates Mark Richards
on his Gordon Highlanders commemorative statue.
Three rousing Caledonian cheers for acclaimed British sculptor Mark Richards who has just successfully completed an ambitious public sculpture commissioned in 2010 by Aberdeen City Council to commemorate The Gordon Highlanders (left), the renowned regiment of the North-East of Scotland (established in 1794 and amalgamated into The Scottish Regiment in 1994). Mark won the commission following a nationwide competition and has produced a work of dignity and power that brilliantly combines the historical Highlanders and their contemporary counterparts in a compactly integrated group. One rarely gets a chance to
track the demanding technical challenges involved in creating a large-scale work of such formal complexity, but happily Mark recorded every stage of the group's  conception and creation. You can view it on his website here and read the Daily Telegraph's account of Prince Charles's unveiling here. Bravo, Mark.

I am about to write the catalogue introduction for a joint exhibition of the work of British sculptors Charlotte Mayer and Almuth Tebbenhoff which will be at Pangolin's London Gallery in March. Charlotte's and Almuth's sculptural projects share many natural affinities and their work will look wonderful together. Watch this space for more details.

Helios by Simon Allen
The Sculpture Agency has long been champion of West Country sculptor Simon Allen, five of whose works have just been sold to The World Gold Council, including the recent large circular work entitled Helios (left) and four smaller works from a new series of gold squares entitled  Metamorphosis 1-4. These will be going to the USA,  to be hung in the WGC's new Washington Offices. Simon has also been invited to the Gold  Council's London offices to lecture about his work and his experience of using gold leaf in his art.

There is still a chance to acquire the last two remaining works from a group of 8 small wall sculptures by Simon, also entitled Metamorphosis., which can be seen here, while a new group of  small works entitled Fluid Forms can also be viewed on Simon's website here

A quick word about an open call for entries for a new photographic and video project — Beyond Memories — recently launched by Celeste Network. More details here

Finally, Seasons Greetings and Happy Holidays from everyone at the Sculpture Agency (you know — the Web Designers, the IT Manager, the Finance Director, the Marketing Department, the typing pool, the office cleaners, the estate manager, the janitor, and the foundry staff). We wish you all a prosperous and successful 2012. 

Monday, October 31, 2011

Afghan Bullet Hole Relief Sculptures by Piers Secunda

London-based sculptor Piers Secunda has a new show of his Afghan Bullet Hole Relief Paintings opening this month at the Aubin Gallery, 64-66 Redchurch Street, London E2 7DP. The exhibition, entitled Taliban Relief Paintings and Crude Oil Silkscreens, opens on 16th November and continues until 24th December.

Below is a short video explaining the ideas behind the Taliban project and giving some insight into Secunda's working process

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

The Sculpture Agency in The Times

Sean Henry:
'Conflux' at Salisbury Cathedral
They tell me that newspapers are in crisis and that readerships are falling and that the recent News of the World phone-hacking scandal has left an irreparable dent in the reputation of Fleet Street. But I have to admit that when The Times turns its benevolent eye on one of your projects one does still feel the warm glow that comes with traditional press endorsement.

So a big hooray and thank you to The Times's arts editor Huon Mallalieu who, having received my last newsletter, this morning acknowledged the efforts of The Sculpture Agency to promote contemporary sculpture (The Times page 24). The purpose of The Sculpture Agency is simple. It is to communicate the work of serious contemporary sculptors in an intelligent and critical way to as broad an audience as possible.

I do intend to extend the Agency into a commercial operation as well in the coming weeks by making it possible for sculptors (particularly those with no formal gallery representation) to sell their works online. But the overriding objective is to encourage a more critical awareness of what sculpture is and how the UK is particularly well-endowed with sculptural talent.

As usual, if you're a sculptor and would like your work represented by The Sculpture Agency, please contact me. I can't guarantee that I will accept every application as I exercise a rigorous quality control over the kind of work I include. But all approaches are welcome.

Sean Henry, Italia
Meanwhile The Times piece gave a well-earned nod to Jodie Carey's work at Leighton House Museum, to James Capper's work at Glyndebourne and elsewhere, and to Sean Henry's current exhibition of polychrome figure sculptures at Salisbury Cathedral (above left and right).

Sean's show has been drawing huge crowds to Salisbury Cathedral who clearly find his figures in a variety of scales utterly compelling in this quiet Gothic interior. Sean has invited me to write the text for a catalogue he is producing with Scala publishers to mark the exhibition. I'm very pleased to have accepted as the works look marvellous in a cathedral setting normally reserved for figures of the saints and apostles. If you're heading westwards in the coming weeks, I urge you to stop off in Salisbury and take a look at the show. It's no exaggeration to say that it's one of the most stimulating exhibitions in the country at present.

Watch this space for more news of the catalogue.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Jedd Novatt: The new Chillida?

Jed Novatt, Chaos Pamplona
Jedd Novatt's gravity-challenging sculptures — comprised of open structure piled upon open structure — are getting more and more ambitious, as these images of his recently installed Chaos Pamplona in Napa Valley, California clearly reveal. 

But unlike a lot of contemporary sculpture that is just made big for the sake of being big and in-your-face, Novatt's works carry a freight of implied danger that seems to intensify with the increase in scale.

His large-scale outdoor works are also impressive feats of engineering, yet happily they are feats that remain subtly subordinated to the aesthetic power of the work. 

The death of Spanish artist Eduardo Chillida (1924-2002) left a gaping hole on the horizon of 'proper' sculpture — sculpture that is concerned with those eternally important matters such as scale, volume, structure, balance, the dialectics of internal and external energy, and so on.

Coincidentally, Novatt — an American who lives and works in France — now makes much of his work in Spain. Perhaps unwittingly (but perhaps with conviction also) he is slowly taking up the challenge thrown down by his great Basque predecessor.

Novatt may be the rightful heir to Chillida's crown.

Read my introduction to the catalogue of Novatt's one-man show in 2008 at the Musée d'Art et d'Industrie André Diligent 'La Piscine' in Roubaix, northern France on the Home Page of The Sculpture Agency.