Archive for the ‘Contemporary Sculpture’ Category

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Abstraction and Alcohol, Expressionism and Excess: Jack Jubb

July 24, 2011

Every year, to run alongside its Summer Exhibition, the Royal Academy of Arts hosts an online gallery that showcases the cream of A-Level work by students across the UK. This year’s exhibition contains three works by a young artist called Jack Jubb that immediately grabbed my attention. This piece is not so much a review but a reflection on his work.

Red, Orange, Tan and Purple, 2011

Red, Orange, Tan and Purple, 1954

Jubb’s works engage the art of the Abstract Expressionist Mark Rothko, taking three canvases by the celebrated artist and re-imagining them as alcoholic drinks. Aside from the ingenious aesthetic consideration – each drink, recalling the colour composition of a Rothko canvas, is created in the style of a layered cocktail or shooter that one might find in a bar or nightclub – the works, taken collectively, explore alcohol consumption on a deeper level.

Untitled, 2011

Untitled, 1969

Rothko’s art is an exploration of the emotive effect of colour. Often huge in scale, the viewer is immersed in the emotional spectrum of his vast colour fields: sometimes touching, occasionally disturbing; his canvases can range from ecstasy to anger, joy to despair. By re-envisaging Rothko’s oeuvre as alcoholic beverages Jubb acknowledges not only the emotive power of the artist’s work, but also the passionate and often impulsive extremes that are the result of excessive alcohol consumption. It is a highly accomplished triptych, both aesthetically and conceptually; a refreshing reflection of contemporary society that displays a maturity beyond the artist’s young age.

White Centre, 2011

White Centre, 1950

To view the other entries for the Royal Academy’s A-Level Summer Exhibition, 2011 visit their virtual gallery by clicking here.

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The Saatchi Gallery and Coldharbour London: Heavyweight Light Sculpture

June 28, 2011

Broadly speaking, the acquisition history of the collector Charles Saatchi reveals a penchant for artworks in which shock value registers above aesthetic consideration. Jake and Dinos Chapman’s Zygotic Acceleration, Biogenetic, De-sublimated Libidinal Model (1995) immediately springs to mind as an example of a particularly vulgar artwork – though not its title! – as does Tracey Emin’s I’ve Got It All (2000). Not all deliberately shocking art is substandard however; Marcus Harvey’s glowering portrait Myra (1995), also bought by Saatchi, has a conceptual level that surpasses its immediate crassness: the marks that make up the child killer’s face are applied using a plaster casts of an infant’s hand. Generally I consider most artwork of this ilk poorly-conceived. With new artists especially, it seems as if their all consuming desire to attract the attention of the infamous Saatchi obstructs considered aesthetic judgement – Myra is one of the few exceptions. It was, admittedly, with a distinct feeling of trepidation that I made my way to the Saatchi Gallery’s latest exhibition of contemporary sculpture.

The Shape of Things to Come is comprised mostly of underwhelming sculpture though somewhat unexpectedly, the shock factor, for so long a staple ingredient of ‘Saatchi art’, is largely absent from the exhibition. There are notable exceptions but even these attempts lack a provocative edge so accustomed have we become to their forebears: The Healers (2008) by David Altmejd rehashes elements of sexual depravity that characterise the Chapman Brothers’ oeuvre, the fissures he renders in his coarse, figurative plasterwork only emphasising the lack of substance in his art.

The Healers, 2008

Where intentional provocation recedes one would expect aesthetic consideration to return, but instead an uninspiring sense of the mundane permeates most aspects of this exhibition. Works by Rebecca Warren, Matthew Brannon and Oscar Tuazon are particularly lacklustre, however Berlinde De Bruyckere’s K36 (2003) offers one of the more intriguing exhibits incorporating beauty and provocation in equal measure. Taking the hide of a horse as a sculptural shell, its glossy coat alluring, enticing, it is only when you come within touching distance that you are impacted by the enormity of its disfiguration. Eyeless and deliberately malformed, this once proud creature becomes an abject entity that borders on formal abstraction.

K36 (The Black Horse), 2003

There are few artworks in this exhibition that appeal on a primarily aesthetic level; the most visually stimulating pieces however, incorporate artificial light. David Batchelor’s Brick Lane Remix I (2003) is a sculptural installation of recovered light boxes transformed to project vibrant colours and, my personal favourite, Anselm Reyle’s Untitled (2006) constitutes a seemingly chaotic assembly of found neon tubes. Both artworks belie their material origins as vestiges of modern life, their discarded light sources rejuvenated into sculptural works that recall twentieth-century modernism: Batchelor’s contribution revives the pure, effervescent colour palette of Fauvism with nuanced, Modrian-esque structural rigidity, whilst Reyle’s piece evokes the vigour of Abstract Expressionism in three-dimensional stasis.

Brick Lane Remix I, 2003

Untitled, 2006

The appreciation and manipulation of light has been integral to artistic representation throughout history and particularly in painting, yet its use in contemporary sculpture reflects, in all its glorious hues, the cultural ubiquity of artificial light: firmly rooted in the now as the small, flickering sign in the kebab shop window, the car lights on the motorway, the brash advertising of Piccadilly Circus. Its prominence has seen it utilized increasingly in artistic practice, fascinating examples of which can be found in the inaugural exhibition of contemporary sculpture at Coldharbour London.

A gem of an exhibition, Illumination brings together the work of emerging and established artists in a celebration of the sensory and the surreal. Unlike the light works in The Shape of Things to Come that comprise of glaring, structured neon, the sculptural installations of Illumination explore the meditative qualities of light, focusing less on physicality and more on experience. The exhibition opens with In My End is My Beginning (2011), an elegant triptych of light boxes by Kirsty Macleod that possess a cosmic, spiritually-evocative undertone enhanced by compositional parallels with Hindu motifs.

In My End is My Beginning, 2011

This otherworldly trope is continued in the work of Lawrence Lek whose sculpture Twins (2011) looms impressively from the rear of the gallery. Formally organic yet immediately alien, its wood and steel frame casts an intense, complex shadow on the wall behind as light plays off its undulating surface. Its surreal qualities are magnified by the accompanying Twins Photograph (2011) that recalls the simple horizons of Salvador Dalí’s dreamscapes. A video of Twins can be accessed by clicking here.

Twins Photograph, 2011

Disco Volante, 2010

The most mesmeric work, however, is an installation by Adam Barker-Mill. Disco Volante (2010) exists in a private, purpose-built room wherein a continual cycle of pulsing, luminescent and pastel-coloured light washes over you. In a very short time all sense of physical surroundings is lost as your eyes lose focus and colour seeps into your very being. It is a joyous demonstration of the emotive power of light and colour that elevates mood and manipulates orientation.

As a means of artistic expression artificial light is capable of extraordinary aestheticism rendering bold physicality as well as the subtly sensual. Indeed, if the light-incorporating works of these two exhibitions are anything to go by then, superior to the other uninspiring sculptures in the Saatchi collection, in artificial light we have an exemplary modern medium for a technologically-aware age.

The exhibition Illumination runs at Coldharbour London until July 13, 2011.
And The Shape of Things to Come runs at the Saatchi Gallery until October 16, 2011.

Both exhibitions are free.

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Richard Long and Giuseppe Penone: Touching the Earth

June 7, 2011

When the first human footprint marked the dust of Africa, a fascinating relationship began between humanity and the natural world. For as long as humankind has embraced civilisation – from the first attempts at irrigation to the more recent concerns of global warming and the means of sourcing sustainable energy – we have sought to manipulate the Earth and tame its elements to our advantage. With the explosion of Land Art in the 1970s, this relationship between man and Earth came to the forefront of artistic exploration: art escaped from the confines of the studio and embraced the wild qualities and vast expanses of the natural world, which in turn became a malleable artistic medium. The artists Richard Long (British) and Giuseppe Penone (Italian) have long been exponents of this particular artistic approach and their dual exhibition at Haunch of Venison, London showcases a continued investigation of this relationship, drawing on their own experiences to create unique and engaging pieces that explore mankind’s imprint on the natural world.

Spanning the top floor of the building you traverse the gallery space in a generally circuitous fashion. At the top of the grand staircase is a central landing leading off from which are the east galleries housing the works of Long, and the west galleries in which you discover Penone. Whichever artist you choose to begin with, the gallery’s layout means that you will encounter the other before returning again to the landing, your circuit completed. This central landing area acts, therefore, to physically connect the east and west galleries. Fittingly it also unites, by way of the Penone artwork displayed there, a concept at the root of both artists’ practice. Projection (2000) takes the intricate whirls of a fingerprint and reproduces them three-dimensionally in bronze. Initially small in scale, the castings increase in size and magnitude forming a telescope-like shape supported amongst upright branches. It is a clear metaphor for the way man imposes himself upon the natural world; the suggestion of a telescope indicating, given its position at the crossroads of both artists’ endeavours, the scrutiny with which they critique our place in the order of things.

Projection, 2000

Projection (detail), 2000

Long, renowned for turning walking into an act worthy of artistic merit, engages the same topic through his tried and tested concept. Autumn Snowline, Switzerland (2010) is a photograph depicting the furrow created by the artist as he ploughed through a layer of settled snow. Because nature exists in a state of constant flux, works forged from the landscape often hold true to its ephemeral characteristics and, accordingly, the concept of time becomes nuanced in the work. In the case of Autumn Snowline, not only does the photograph document Long’s individual impact on a particular area of wilderness at a particular time, it engages notions of ephemerality as the only lasting record of Long’s act – all trace of his passage having eventually succumbed to the elements.

Autumn Snowline, 2010

Another of Penone’s works in the exhibition succinctly marries the ideas of human impingement and time. In Maritime Alps – It will continue to grow except at this point (1968-78) a bronze cast of the artist’s hand is attached to a sapling that, over the course of ten years, distorts the growth of the tree.

Maritime Alps - It will continue to grow except at this point, 1968-78

Similar conceptual concerns, in so far as they relate to the significance of time, can be found in Long’s textual works. Being at Midday (2011), to cite one example, is a description of a precise moment during his walk in France, superimposed onto the wall of the gallery. Having carefully planned the walk so that he would be in a specific place at a specific point in time, Long alludes to the interplay of the human and the cosmic, of measurement and movement.

Being at Midday, 2011

The conceptual nature of these works requires a considered approach and Haunch of Venison provides a fitting setting for such contemplation. Its vast galleries are quiet; its white walls offer no distraction from the art. Just metres away from the clamour of Regent Street only the soft sound of your footsteps breaks the silence. You feel as you imagine Long must have felt on one of his walks: surrounded by beautiful things, contemplating the world around him and his position within it.

The exhibitions Richard Long: Human Nature and Giuseppe Penone run at Haunch of Venison until August 20, 2011.

Click here for more information.

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Gabriel Orozco: Life, Death and Artifacts

February 17, 2011

Allow me to start with a question: how often do you come across a three star review for an art exhibition? I think I can justifiably state that they are few and far between. Exhibitions, it seems, rarely flirt with mediocrity. They are either very good or very bad. They can offer a thoroughly enjoyable cultural experience, or they can be laborious and mind-numbing. On the negative side this can be a result of poor curatorship or, conversely, it might be that the artworks simply don’t cut it for you as a visitor. Regular readers will have noticed my dismay at the lack of cohesion in the RA’s current Modern British Sculpture show – for me it is a perfect example of the former; a disappointing waste of exhibition potential fraught with curatorial oversight. On the flip side however, sometimes an exhibition comes along that proves to be so much better than anticipated. Tate Modern’s retrospective Gabriel Orozco fell neatly into this category. Sure, the Mexican artist’s works are slightly hit and miss – his paintings, for example, have very little imaginative or creative weight to them – but overall, the number of high-quality works far outweigh those that are found wanting.

Orozco’s art explores ideas of life and death through the manipulation of found objects. As Tate’s retrospective showcases, some of his works can be mournful and reflective, yet others can be seen as a celebration of the joys and vitality of life. Lintels (2001) consists of a series of lints (the mat-like assortment of fluff, skin particles, hair etc. that accumulates in a tumble dryer) taken from laundrettes in New York and hung across the gallery on cables. Reminiscent of dishevelled clothes on a washing line, their suggestion of human activity is accentuated by its total absence. This is made all the more potent when you realise that this artwork was exhibited almost immediately after 9/11; the recognition of loss giving each lint an extra haunting dimension.

Lintels, 2001

Lintels reflects upon the fragility of human life and this theme re-occurs throughout the exhibition. Nearby we find Black Kites (1997) with which Orozco confronts the transient nature of mortality. Created shortly after the artist was released from hospital following a collapsed lung, he skilfully decorated a human skull, a clear personification of death, with a chequered graphite design. This geometric pattern symbolises his attempt at forging order from the ephemeral and all too unpredictable character of death.

Black Kites, 1997

Yet before you begin to suspect otherwise, this exhibition is not all gloom and doom. In fact these melancholic artworks serve a larger purpose in the context of the exhibition – they emphasise the importance of life. Indeed, it is this theme that the majority of Orozco’s art joyously seizes upon. In Four Bicycles (1994), the aforementioned bikes are welded together to create a loosely spherical structure. It is a playful subversion of the linearity of the push bike that, whilst being entirely useless in terms of their original function, evokes a feeling of absurd perpetual motion.

Four Bicycles (There Is Only One Direction), 1994

This theme is more explicit in Horses Running Endlessly (1995). Orozco has multiplied the size of a chessboard by four and populated in entirely with knights. With no kings or other pieces the game is without purpose. No longer restricted by the pursuit of checkmate, the knights are imbued with a newfound freedom. Their unique movement ability (two up and one across or vice versa) means that they appear to run endlessly – to quote the brochure: they form “an infinite circular dance of pieces” limited only by the confines of the board. The recognition of this bizarre attribution of freedom is capable of forcing a smile from even the most dispirited of visitors.

Horses Running Endlessly, 1995

Without a doubt though, my favourite piece of the exhibition is Carambole with Pendulum (1996). A culmination of the playful qualities of the previous two artworks, Carambole… consists of an oval billiard table with no pockets, adorned by only two white balls and a red suspended from the ceiling like a pendulum. Like the chess board, the traditional rules have been discarded. With oval cushions causing the white balls to rebound at unexpected angles and the red capable of swinging in any direction, this unique parlour game is open to a host of gaming possibilities. Unlike Horses… however, this time the visitor is able to embrace the artwork by picking up a cue and partaking in the experience. I for one could happily have spent half an hour hitting the balls around the table were it not for the steady stream of equally eager visitors. Certainly, there is a small moment of joyous pride to be found in successfully cannoning a white ball into the red as, at the lowest point in its swing, it fleetingly brushes the table felt. This unexpected level of interaction is unusual in a gallery setting, yet, in this piece anyway, it is essential for creating the small pleasures through which Orozco’s art thrives.

Carambole with Pendulum, 1996

Overall then, Orozco’s more sombre works successfully conjure an appreciation of mortality which in turn heightens the moments of joy discernable in his more upbeat pieces. Ultimately, when I left the exhibition and re-entered the bustling and oppressive London streets, I felt encouraged to seek out and seize those little moments which make life special. An infrequent outcome for an art exhibition, yet a wonderfully inspirational one.

Gabriel Orozco closes at Tate Modern on April 25 2011. It does incur an admission fee.

For more information visit the Tate website.

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Modern British Sculpture: An Incoherent Jumbling of Otherwise Impressive Art

February 10, 2011

This week I visited the Royal Academy to witness Modern British Sculpture, an exhibition that promised to showcase the very best of British sculpture from across the twentieth century. Such a comprehensive attempt has not been seen in the UK for 30 years meaning that, naturally, it has received a considerable amount of hype. I’m sorry to report, however, that this hype has been largely unsubstantiated and that, despite its huge potential, this hodgepodge exhibition will not live long in the memory.

The first room is perplexing. It features a central model of Edwin Lutyen’s Cenotaph (a monument that stands in Whitehall to honour the British war dead) surrounded by photographs of long-destroyed Jacob Epstein sculptures from the British Medical Association building. And so this grand review of modern sculpture begins with a series of photographs and a monument. An eccentric and perplexing start certainly. What this opening room is attempting to highlight, albeit not very clearly, is a choice that faced British sculptors in the twentieth century and is arguably the main, re-occurring theme of this exhibition: the choice between the figurative (as signified by Epstein) and the abstract (Lutyen).

Conversely, the second room offers a vast improvement.  A considerable number of ethnographic loans from the British Museum and the V&A are juxtaposed with early twentieth-century sculptures by British artists. This room treats visitors to a visual comparison of early-modern sculpture against, for example, the Polynesian, Assyrian, Egyptian, and Greek works that influenced them. In the same way that Picasso was famously inspired by the “primitive” art he saw at the Trocadéro in Paris – see the African-looking masks in Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907) – Eric Gill and his contemporaries were influenced to sculpt works like Nude Girl with Hair (1925) by pieces they saw in the museums of London.

Room 2, Modern British Sculpture
Nude Girl with Hair, 1925

The layout and directionality of this second room leads the eye towards Epstein’s Adam (1938), gloriously framed by one of the Royal Academy’s dramatic archways. Its grandiose positioning champions Adam as the pinnacle of exotically-influenced British sculpture in the early-twentieth century. This solid bit of curatorship is impressive but with it, unfortunately, the exhibition has reached its peak. What follows are a series of galleries which, for the most part, contain imposing, individual sculptures. Collectively, however, they fail to form a cohesive narrative relating to the wider context of British sculptural tradition.

Adam, 1938

Let me give you an example. One of the galleries is dedicated entirely to a reconstruction of Victor Pasmore and Richard Hamilton’s An Exhibit (1957). A collection of coloured, geometric shapes are suspended from the ceiling as if a Mondrian canvas has morphed into a three-dimensional dreamscape.

An Exhibit, 1957

It is an enjoyably surreal experience. The problem lies in the fact that this installation is preceded by a room dedicated to distinguishing between Barbara Hepworth’s abstraction and Henry Moore’s figuratively abstract style, and is followed by a room devoted to a work by Anthony Caro. We are informed that Caro’s Early One Morning (1962) “can be seen to synthesise the work of Moore and Hepworth – the abstraction that they have in common and the figuration that keeps them apart.” All well and good, but why dissect and disrupt this viable artistic connection with a gallery dedicated to a seemingly unrelated piece of installation art?

Hepworth – Single Form (Memorial), 1961-62 and Moore – Reclining Figure, 1951
Early One Morning, 1962

The exhibition is full of these strange and often irrational curatorial decisions; yet whilst it succeeds in showcasing eye-catching works by renowned artists such as Richard Long, Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst, its lack of narrative consistency irreparably damages the experience. The inclusion of Koons and other American artists for example, causes the abstract/figurative argument to get lost in an attempt at showing British sculpture in a wider, trans-Atlantic context.

Ultimately, Modern British Sculpture descends from its early promise (first room aside) into a haphazard collection of crudely assembled “student-like” sculptures towards the end. Why many of these are included at all is beyond me. If it is an attempt to look to the future of British sculpture then one can only conclude that British sculpture is fast approaching a dark age! Whilst works like these would usually appear out of place amongst the more established art on display, it is a damning indictment of the exhibition’s cohesion that their mediocrity does not seem out of place. Alastair Sooke wrote in The Telegraph that “the eccentricity of this show is its greatest asset” and, by and large, reviews have reached similarly insipid conclusions. I couldn’t disagree more. Modern British Sculpture is an exhibition with an often inconceivable narrative which is at best, disjointed; it skips between galleries with apparent abandon. If this sort of eccentricity is a great asset for an exhibition then Sooke is welcome to write my obituary – I’m sure he’ll do a decent job of turning my worst character flaws into my strongest qualities!

The Modern British Sculpture exhibition closes on April 7 2011. It does incur an admission charge.

For more information go to the Royal Academy website.

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Beyond Limits: A Monumental Experience

October 15, 2010

This week I turn my eye to contemporary sculpture and in particular to the current exhibition in the gardens of Chatsworth House in the Peak District.

Beyond Limits is a selling exhibition of monumental sculpture that is brought together by the combined energies of the renowned auction house Sotheby’s and the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire who own Chatsworth House. Set amongst and against the estate’s stunning gardens and lands, the exhibition offers not only a feast of striking and diverse sculpture, but also an excuse for an altogether pleasurable day out. Certainly for me, the crisp, clean air of the Peak District was a wonderful release from the city and made the day that little bit more gratifying. The diversity of the sculpture mirrors the gardens themselves: a landscape of trees and shrubberies, rose beds and extensive water features, even a maze. Such a landscape creates innumerable opportunities to spring an artistic surprise around the next corner and this is utilised fully by the sculptures’ clever positioning. There is a great sense of joy to be gained by stumbling across a huge piece of modern art that is so immediately in contrast with the surrounding garden yet at the same time recalls ideals of natural beauty.

Perhaps the most obvious example of this is Marc Quinn’s The Engine of Evolution (2010), a 3 metre long representation of adjacent flowers. Despite being cast in heavy bronze, the delicacy of the detail and the brilliant white finish accentuate a perception of lightness similar to what one would expect of a natural flower. Additionally, the sculpture holds sexual connotations: the phallic imagery of one flower’s stigma serves to oppose the distinctly feminine qualities of its opposite number. This fundamental characteristic of reproduction ties the sculpture into the natural processes of rejuvination and growth that make up the very fabric of the garden in which it is displayed.

The Engine of Evolution

Quinn is not alone in using an implied sexuality in his work. It is visible too, in what is perhaps my favourite piece of the exhibition, Richard Hudson’s Eve (2010). The name itself suggests femininity and it is a trait abound in the finished article. The graceful, sumptuous curves of the sculpture invite the viewer’s eye to follow its contours, caress them even. There is something wonderfully voyeuristic in the pleasure derived from Eve and this is emphasised by the work’s reflective surface – you are intimately aware of your own gaze at the same time as you follow its organic form.

Eve #1
Eve #2

Another piece of note is Lynn Chadwick’s Stairs (1991). Winner of the 1956 Venice Biennale’s International Prize for Sculpture, Chadwick found almost immediate international success. His later work explores the primary qualities of archetypal human movement (the all-encompassing nature of which is made evident by the simplistic shapes he assigned to his heads). The suggestion of continued movement in this piece, to me recalls M.C. Escher’s print Ascending and Descending (1960).

Stairs

Another sculpture, as impressive as it is intriguing, is Manolo Valdés’ Butterflies (2010). Whilst the opinion that Chadwick’s sculpture recalls Escher is conjecture on my part, the historicism of Valdés’ work is fact. If one looks to his painted work, a debt to the classical master Velázquez is undeniable; indeed, Valdés’ art is primarily concerned with taking images from art history and transforming them through colour and/or scale to become art objects in a their own, new light. In terms of Butterflies specifically, the excessive head-dresses of Velázquez are discernable, but the work also owes much to the catalogue of Matisse and particularly to his portrait Woman with a Hat (1905).

Butterflies #1
Butterflies #2

Like many of the other works on display in Beyond Limits, Valdés’ Butterflies reflects the natural beauty of the Chatsworth estate. As an exhibition it offers a dramatic, unique opportunity to engage with an array of contemporary sculpture away from the bustle of the city. Taking these artworks outside of the traditional gallery setting gives them an expressive freedom, a greater sense of monumentality and they are all the more impressive for it.

Other artists on display include: Germaine Richier, Barry Flanagan, Damien Hirst, Ju Ming and Yue Minjun.

Beyond Limits continues until 31 October 2010. To book tickets go to https://www.chatsworth.org/tickets/