PRINT April 1978

Aspects of British Sculpture

ACADEMIC CATEGORIZATION ALWAYS SMACKS of consumerism, and it is to get away from this attitude that I somewhat arbitrarily choose only seven artists who make three-dimensional objects to give an indication of some of the sculptural activity taking place in England today. The fact is that only two of the artists discussed here—Nigel Hall and Nicholas Pope—appeared in William Tucker’s 1975 exhibition “The Condition of Sculpture” at the Hayward Gallery in London, although the show included the work of 22 sculptors then practicing in England. None of them was more than 41 years old and most were much younger.

When we remember that only 40 years ago Henry Moore was vilified by the art establishment in England, and that only 20 years ago his work was still a chief butt of cartoonists in the popular press; when it is recalled that Anthony Caro’s first exhibition of abstract sculpture took place in 1963, the present range of British sculpture, of which the seven artists represented here form only a part, is testimony enough to a situation that, quite literally, can only be termed a renaissance. But why these seven? Perhaps this is best answered by considering the fact that only one of them, Charles Hewlings, studied at the St. Martin’s School of Art, that home of Anthony Caro and mainspring of activity in the ’60s. Caro continues to be a sculptural force, a three-dimensional draughtsman of exceptional invention. So do the best of his onetime pupils, notably Phillip King. But in too many cases Caro’s example has led to a deadening academicism. At the recent exhibition of British sculpture in Battersea Park in honor of the Queen’s Jubilee, the St. Martin’s work was instantly identifiable: rusty industrial steel collaged to endless self-referential effect in gloomy celebration of the Protestant work ethic, formalism at its most sterile. Odd that it should have declined to this, when one considers the ambition of Caro’s example and the hedonistic assault on painting and technology to which it first gave rise.

Of course, a similar retreat of a more widespread and dramatic kind can be traced in the decline of painting from post-gesturalism to Minimalism, Minimal sculpture and eventually purely verbal art theory and socialist ideology. Art that changes so self-consciously and, in a lot of cases, fashionably, in response to style, is bound to carry with it a great deal of consumerist attitudinizing, of academic defensiveness of the kind that intellectually mummified the latter-day welders of St. Martin’s. But within the feverish careerism of stylistic succession there is always artistic generation, and very often the best work is carried on to one side. Stylistic succession drove itself into the ground, and as a result the ’70s have mercifully remained free of its considerations.

For some, spoiled by the rewards and excesses of the ’60s, recent work has accordingly seemed eclectic to the point of dormancy. Yet many have welcomed the freedom of stylistic co-existence and the generosity of wide acceptance. These seven artists have little in common in terms of the visual aspect of their work, but they are linked in my mind by this very independence.

A radical and unapologetically romantic—in the full-blooded 19th-century meaning of the word—inclination to make large issues the subject of his art is what makes Michael Sandle’s work so bracing. The visual clarity is all the more admirable because of the way it so successfully marshals such an abundance of allusions. Sandle’s Drawing for Submarine Monument with Torpedo; U-boat with Discs/Water Lilies is a good example: the submarine, ultimate defender of the status quo between the West and the East, with waterlilies, flowers of aquatic balance, as its metaphor. But this is also, patently, a monument of the libido and the subconscious, with references even in its conning tower to the Tower of Refuge, on the Isle of Man, where Sandie passed the war years as a child. The Isle of Man is a place moreover of battle-gray seas and wind-bent beeches, against which shelved pads of fungi cast clear-cut, west-coast shadows. Sandie at present teaches in Germany, in a city razed overnight 35 years ago and subsequently rebuilt, with an equal indifference to the inhabitants. His isolation from England, at a frontier of such political significance and tension, has made him brood on war, and the war, in ways that would be difficult to maintain in the comfortingly insular atmosphere of England.

For some time Sandie has been working on a Mickey Mouse Machine-gun Monument (subtitled Monument to America), a piece of contained fury that was initially inspired by his disgust with the revelations of the Calley trial. The blatant title is a conscious irony that questions the doubtful origins of all moral indignation—not least Sandle’s own—and the rhetoric it implies. Ironic, too, that the piece will be cast in that finest of fine art materials, bronze, each piece modeled because it will, of course, finish up larger than life. “Mickey-mouse” as a dismissive term and Mickey Mouse as the bland weapon of American imperialism are also clearly indicated. But this is not just a demonstration of anti-American feeling (war as a universal theme, its deceptions held in common). Along with its suggestions of irony, the composition of the work is deliberately reminiscent of tomb sculpture, and a gothic interest in necrophilia is implied.

Carl Plackman’s work is equally referential. The objects are not symbols—they do not stand for anything other than themselves—but by questioning our understanding of simple things Plackman reveals the complexity of their derivation and meaning. Giacometti said of himself that all he was trying to do was to represent life as he saw it. Plackman explores the implications of seeing life as each one of us sees it. It is about the nature of things: what is their true nature? Does life exist as it is or only as we see it? By the nature of this task there are no solutions, only clues and insights; this is a didactic preoccupation, but never arid, visually enriched as it is by scrupulous craftsmanship and an idiosyncratic mixture of materials.

The central piece in Plackman’s last London show, in September, was an allegory of male/female strife entitled Relationships and the Way in Which the World Defeats Us. The components of this piece rendered the whole of one end of the gallery suitably claustrophobic. A “bed of strife” divided the male from the female imagery of the piece, an object of divided nature. Two smaller and more digestible works relate to it and are more appropriate to describe: Bachelor of Arts and The Morality of Light. These pieces are about relationships and frustrations, frustrations of meaning as well as purpose. In Bachelor of Arts, which is about sexual and artistic frustration, an imagery of impotence abounds: roots are unflowering branches; two candles adjoining these branches are placed wick to wick so that, once lit, they would burn apart. Plumb-bob weights reinforce a mood of tension and draw attention down to some fruit, a juicer and fruit seeds, with a candle-snuffer, on a stair on the floor, with flowerpots underneath. These too in impotent juxtapositions: if you picked up the candle-snuffer you would find its cap was full, that the juicer cannot squeeze apples and pears (Cockney slang for “stairs”), and that the stairs, in turn, separate the flowerpots from the fruit that might otherwise seed them.

The Morality of Light reflects upon light as a moral element. A case displays standard lighting components, whose functions are always clarified in the trade by “female” and “male” references. Below hangs a kind of “curtain”—a cutter-off of light—made up of zinc casts of tailors’ patterns for morning-suits. The patterns (unconsciously, it happens) strengthen the male sexual reference by referring visually to Duchamp’s Malic Molds. Containment and control are echoed throughout the piece. Even something so harmless as a morning-suit has a dual function (wedding and funeral wear), as a revelation and a barrier. Tension and contained separation are always visually apparent in Plackman’s work even before their references are decoded, which also reflects the way each piece treads the treacherous line between the banal and the absolute.

Martin Naylor is existentialist in his concerns, a maker of scatalogical marks and random notations on infinite themes. His work has a conscious affiliation with music. Fortress I of 1975 is typical of his aggressiveness of stance and his delicacy of implication. There a plywood sheet can be seen as standing in support of the wall like a buttress, or else sunk into it, like the head of an axe—both readings supplementing its combative, obstructional connotation. Its surface too is covered with a “war” of marks: skirmishes, blemishes, nervous reiterations sometimes rearing into three-dimensional relief. These are like “grace notes” to the “drone” of the board (the bagpipe, after all, is still officially classified as an instrument of psychological warfare). But fortress is also overtly existential, a statement of existing, of the right to exist.

Last year Naylor elaborated on the theme of “the death of innocence,” an idea suggested to him by a still photograph of a film-take. Piles of inked and varnished papers, jotted upon with marks and thoughts, are overlaid by implements of restraint and danger; each piece is entitled Mutatis Mutandis (“with due alteration of details”). Naylor’s original “death of innocence” photograph implied a tension between the preying figures of a film crew and a victimized actress—who is literally being “tracked”—expressed in an interplay of lines like electrical static. Four balls rest ominously outside the image, free to roll from side to side. The photograph is charged with sexual and psychological innuendo, its heavy concentration of attention on an individual implying also a threat to her existence. The only art to be seen, two portraits hanging neglected in a corner, ironically comment on the artistic practice Naylor himself is engaged in as he creates the image.

Nigel Hall’s work is probably the most familiar to Artforum readers, since he has had several exhibitions in America over the past few years. His delicate geometric wall-pieces allude to volume as the spectator moves before them, the pieces also encouraging a mental shift from the actual aluminum tubing projecting from the wall to the imaginative space conjured up mentally. Hall himself finds much the same effect in the art of Claude Lorrain, where the viewer’s understanding of the painting advances from a tactile and highly realistic foreground to a point of imaginary synthesis where the horizon invisibly meets the sky. In Eastern art, too, where the thing seen is only an indication of the thing implied, the rocks in Zen gardens seem merely a surface vestige of something continuing to the center of the earth. Similarly, Hall’s pieces hold one line true to the vertical as an acknowledgment of gravitational force. He achieves in these works an emotional force that results from balanced tensions.

Clip is one of Hall’s most successful sculptures to date because of the simplicity of its lines together with the complexity of the volumes they contain. Moving from right to left, a projecting and very subtly bent right angle slowly aligns with the perpendicular, holding the piece to the wall to form a cross, then moves away again to reveal the subtle twist of its hold on the perpendicular. The other lines in Clip can be pursued through a similar succession of involvements, of flatness and relief, of soft and hard shapes. Hall’s latest drawings are equally concentrated, cutting into space and, through the complexity of their margins, cluttering their apparently blank centers with implied and contradictory volume.

Tony Carter transforms things with an exquisite and tireless attention to detail, so that the nature, though not the character, of the original is changed. Usually Carter duplicates an image through minutely precise overpainting. In this way he conveys the excitement of his response to both the original and its associations without altering them, a process perhaps akin, in nature, to the transformation of wood into stone by petrification. In artistic terms, this practice can be described as an extension of still-life, and its arduousness—a physical reflection of Carter’s initial ardor for the thing processed—often seems an exercise of such painstaking concentration that it amounts to a spiritual act.

In Arc—the Mould and the Cast of a Warp Implied by the Strain of a Bow, two columns are surmounted by slabs of marble. On one slab lies a faded photograph of a Japanese archer, his bow at full stretch; on the other there is a rich monochrome reproduction of the same, in a material that looks as light as ash. You are asked to be careful, to hold your breath, when you look at this fragment, because if you exhaled it might blow away. The charred effect of the image is due not only to its velvety surface, but also to a shattering that has taken place in the top left-hand corner. When Carter first saw the photograph of the archer he was struck by two things: its stillness, and the contrast between that stillness and the implied discomfort of the archer’s tense, fully stretched pose. To achieve the effect of these feelings he covered the surface, millimeter by millimeter, with synthetic filler and oil paint. This warped the paper of the original photograph into a bent and itself bowlike tension. Then Carter peeled this overlaid image from the surface of the photograph and laid it on an adjoining plinth. He knew doing so would spring the tension of the mold, but in springing it—and hence shattering the corner—he gave proof of tension while also conveying the original air of stillness. Thanks to Carter’s working methods, some of his objects take as much as 18 months to complete, which prevents him from making very many pieces. But even the resulting scarcity intensifies the poetic concentration of his art.

The hallmark of the work of Nicholas Pope is its simplicity. Pope is the truest sculptor, in the traditional sense of the term, of the artists here under discussion. A trip to Rumania, by-passing Brancusi to work with actual peasants up in the villages, was for Pope an important experience. In his art the material makes the object, a very different idea from Henry Moore’s “truth-to-material” philosophy by which some premeditated “sculptural” form is understood to be the final result. Pope avoids artiness at any cost. He uses everyday industrial tools like chain-saws, pneumatic drills, grinders, and convenient bulk materials like chalk. The effect of the tool on the material is never disguised; in fact, substances like lead, wood and clay are particularly receptive to marks. Pope was brought up in the countryside and continues to live and work there.

A Small Chalk, dating from 1975, is a lump of chalk supported on walnut legs. The legs flex under the weight of the chalk they peg into. To get away from the loss of energy inherent in the sprawled base Pope began stacking. In Two Stacks the use of metal-cutters created a twist in the lead leaves. The columnar curve of the piece straightens, depending from what angle you view it. Recently Pope has modeled more, finding modeling a more intimate form of expression. Terracotta Arch is a pinched line—the points of contact between the pinches providing the incident—which moves sideways, giving an effect of spreading out. The way the form becomes a line from certain angles continues Pope’s questioning of the third dimension. He has also moved back again to single-material pieces, feeling that the introduction of different materials was a temptation to contrivance.

Charles Hewlings’ work contains some of the industrial paraphernalia of St. Martin’s art, but illusion of mass or plane are not for him. He is a realist of sorts, but everything must express feeling. Like many artists, Hewlings took flight from a single piece of work, in his case At the Foot of Borobudur, of 1976.

The idea for the piece came to him in a dream and it has that look of rightness that one would expect from such a subconsciously derived conviction. In it Hewlings succeeded in articulating certain of his preoccupations of the time: a desire, for instance, to produce something having to do both with landscape and with architecture, a piece too that had “hidden” features and was yet “together.” Having discovered the form, the margins took care of themselves. All of this is strikingly apparent: an empty, square cavelike cavity at the center is a foil to the solidity of heaped stones as well as the boxes, also empty, whose end shapes it echoes. The propped post on the left suggests the portal of a tomb (or mine), while stones piled alongside climb like stones on a hillside. Scattered about the whole heap are surface details—rods, bits of wood—that define the form as well as varying the interest. Such details comprise a drawing element. Every bit of the piece has its own life as well as its often rhythmic place in the whole. For a young sculptor, this remains a remarkably mature work.

John McEwen