London

Antony Gormley

Whitechapel Gallery

With Open Door, 1975, Antony Gormley felt that for the first time in his sculpture “the conceit and the process were united.” The work consists of a four-panel, turn-of-the-century pine door that has been sliced meticulously into vertical strips. Each slice has been flipped over and nailed to battens, and the result then hangs free in the air. Gormley is aiming to re-create or redefine objects by sculptural means and his work usually begins with such “conceits,” neat devices or clever metaphors involving simultaneous perception of two images. Sometimes the effect is gentle, as when he slices a milk bottle horizontally, then reassembles it. At other times it is more thoroughgoing, as in Bread Line, 1979, three loaves of Mothers Pride bread laid out bite by bite, plus three moldy, compacted loaves; or Rearranged Tree, 1977–78, an entire trunk cut into equal sections and stacked in piles from one to 30 units high. The aim seems to be re-presentation, not representation. In his own words, he takes things that already exist and tries “to make them eloquent.”

The observation is as applicable to Full Bowl, 1978, a set of tightly fitting, concentric lead hemispheres, as to First Tree, 1977–78, in which an entire trunk has been carved away, to discover an inner core and hints of three branches. Yet wrapping and unwrapping, removal and addition, revelation and secrecy, mingle in Gormley’s art. Enhanced yet negated, the bowl increases in bulk but not in size, and (if bowls must function) since its terms of reference have somehow been mislaid, it is then open to other phenomenological or psychological connotations. Only then, perhaps, is the bowl most itself.

Definition and loss of identity are equated in the most blatant of his “conceits.” The rings of a beech tree have been exposed one by one to make a shape resembling a seed, while in two other sets of work, Land Sea and Air, 1977–79, and Fruits of the Earth,1978–79, recognizable objects have been encased in layer after layer of lead until they tend towards bland ovoids. Carvings superimpose two kinds of space, that of his handprints and of the volume of slabs of rock, sometimes half hidden in the earth. Recognition and testing of surfaces, the acknowledgment of similarity between one “skin” and another—in Tree at Rest, 1979, the surface of a pool is conveyed by dropped parts of a tree—are also “conceits,” yet the artificiality this suggests is forgotten as one ponders a private, reasonable world of transformations.

Perhaps because his art so tactfully exaggerates natural processes, Gormley works slowly, stopping when a train of events seems to demand it. So End Product, 1979, consists of an elm-tree base cut away to a “final” layer that has then been burned, an act of destruction that has created the shape of a seed. In Bed, 1980, his meaning is also brought full circle. After laying out slices of Mothers Pride he bit away his own volume twice to make two negatives of bodies, lying side by side like tomb sculptures. Asked why he used bread Gormley replied, “It is the substance which sustains us and is common to everyone. I chose ‘Mothers Pride’ in particular because it is the most processed, the furthest away from the seed and the grain. . . . We eat bread to feed ourselves yet we know we will die.”

Paradoxes of life and death, a play between the organic and the inorganic, a preoccupation with historical identity, all combine in his best work. What makes Gormley so good? His directness? His modesty? The tenderness of his relation to his audience? The feeling that he is attempting to sum up the whole of his experience? Simplicity and wisdom count for a lot, but what makes Gormley a potentially great sculptor is spiritual maturity, a quality that may be embarrassing to acknowledge but would be criminal to ignore.

Stuart Morgan