London

Antoni Tàpies

Waddington Custot Galleries

There is a pleasing and amusing disingenuousness about Antoni Tàpies’ sculpture. It looks at small things, easily ignored, but refuses to remain satisfied with the sanctity of intimacy. Domesticity and immediacy are celebrated, but not at the expense a all else. In his book on still-life painting, Looking at the Overlooked, 1990, Norman Bryson picks up Charles Sterling’s term “rhopography” to refer to “the depiction of those things which lack importance, the unassuming material base of life that ‘importance’ overlooks.” His aim is to question the hierarchical relationship that exists between art dealing with such subject matter and work that concerns itself with larger themes. Tàpies’ art asks the same question, albeit in a rather wry manner.

The text for this show of ten sculptures, all but one in terra-cotta, and all made over the past five years, is a statement by the artist dating back to the mid ’70s: “Many things, as small as they might at first appear, become, seen in the full light of day, infinitely greater and more worthy of respect than all the things conventionally judged important.” Mundane objects are represented, but in such a way—for example, by the use of monumental scale—that they are forced to relinquish their ordinariness. A walnut, Noix, 1987, stands about five feet high, the shell’s surface rendered as a combination of moldings, punchings, and the medium’s natural tendency to fissure. Because it sits upright, on the shell’s seam, the nut is truncated at the bottom to give the piece stability; one thinks of Vasari’s story of Brunelleschi making an egg stand on end.

Grand Livre, (Big book, 1986) is an old, leather-bound volume, redolent of historical gravitas. Blown up to the size of a bed, this weighty tome is treated in a tongue-in-cheek manner by Tàpies. The piece is deliberately bombastic, offering itself as a tomb to lifeless knowledge. In this it is the opposite of the po-faced “significance” one associates with Anselm Kiefer’s book stacks. A similar lightheartedness is apparent in Chaise avec Barre (Chair with bar, 1989), a chair draped with a close-fitting cover. The over suggests an armchair, though there are, in fact, no arms on the chair; empty flaps of cloth have been carefully folded across the seat, and the bar, because it is wider than the chair, juts out on either side as though the seat’s arms have been extended. This same conceit operates in the slightly earlier Pied et Croix (Foot and cross, 1987), a human figure as a surreal foot-cum-cross.

Tàpies’ objects carry heavy referential baggage that confounds simple readings. Coffre (Coffin) and Sac (Sack, both 1989) appear forcibly as the carriers of imaginative as well as literal content. As always, they are covered with Tàpies’ idiosyncratic markings, and though often the tendency for such indecipherable yet palpably intentional symbols results in mystical obfuscation, here this tendency is held at bay by the physical assurance of the graphic and sculptural gestures that produce them. Marks are stamped into the clay and scratched into it both before and after the glaze has been applied, pulling image, process, and form together.

Michael Archer