As proven by the annual Sculpture by the Sea exhibitions sculpture enjoys a widespread popularity, but this doesn’t translate into a thriving market. It remains much harder to sell a sculpture than a painting, as private buyers tend to view sculptures as large, cumbersome objects that have no place in the domestic environment. The pieces that sell most readily are relief works that sit on a wall like paintings.
It’s to be hoped that Sculpture City at the S.H. Ervin Gallery, tentatively scheduled as an annual event, will help audiences rethink their attitudes toward sculpture. This inaugural exhibition features work by ten artists, most of them well known in the field but under-valued in terms of wider public recognition.
One might imagine that the high profile of Sculpture by the Sea has created a more receptive climate for sculpture. This must be true, but there is also a sense in which the show has become a carnival – another excuse for a party in Sydney’s calendar of essential events. Popularity has shaded easily into populism, leading to a large number of joke and novelty works.
This blend of serious and light-hearted pieces is part of the appeal of Sculpture by the Sea, but some artists feel the whole image of sculpture is being gradually dumbed down. The standard argument to the contrary is that viewers who begin by enjoying frivolous art may develop a taste for the hard stuff. It’s the same story in every cultural sphere. If one begins as a fan of James Bond films, is it possible to learn to love Bergman or Kurosawa? Will going along to musicals make people more receptive to opera?
These arguments are irresolvable because they rely too much on individual taste and psychology. Some people begin with cartoons and end with Proust, but the vast majority feels no need to discriminate between high and low culture, beyond saying: “I like it” or “I don’t like it.” Art, for most of us, is an entertainment or distraction that takes us away from the cares of everyday life. There are some who treat every exhibition as an education, but this can be a refined form of self-torture.
Sculpture City asks audiences to engage with sculpture on a deeper level, although the primary appeal of this work is to the senses rather than the intellect. There are plenty of allusions in these pieces but no overt political statements, no unusual materials and no obvious gags. It makes one realise the volume of gimmickry that is taken for granted in most contemporary exhibitions. Think of last year’s Anish Kapoor survey at the MCA with its voids, mirrors, and a mechanical device pushing around a mountain of paint. Kapoor is recognised as one of the world’s leading sculptors but his work is hardly more than a game with the traditional properties of the medium.
This is not the case with the ten, less-famous sculptors in this exhibition: Paul Bacon, Anne Ferguson, Christopher Hodges, Paul Hopmeier, Jan King, Kevin Norton, James Rogers, Hui Selwood, Paul Selwood and Michael Snape.
The selection is not a ‘top ten’ of Australian sculpture as there are many others, such as Ron Robertson-Swann, who would command a place in the hierarchy.
It’s pleasing to see Paul Hopmeier in this first show because he is one of the most versatile and underrated artists in this country. Although often classified as part of that large subculture of sculptors who make abstract work in welded metal, no-one has matched Hopmeier in his willingness to keep experimenting with different styles and motifs. Of his five pieces in this display, Apples & Biscuits (2010) is a three-dimensional rendering of a Cézanne still life; while Rembrandt’s Boat (2001) takes its lead from the Dutch master’s painting, The Storm on the Sea of Galilee (1633), which was stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston in 1990 and never recovered.
These sculptures, which draw on existing works of art, cannot be thought of as appropriations. They are imaginative reconstructions that take the illusory space of a painting and give it a concrete form. They come closer to figuration than anything else in this show, but the vague impression of a boat only sharpens our appreciation of the abstract elements that echo the action of wind and waves.
If Hopmeier is the most daring sculptor in this group, his spouse, Jan King, is easily the most lyrical. Her sculptures contain frequent references to landscape or the natural world, combining textures such as steel and slate. King has an amazingly sensuous way with metal, which she twists into sweeping arabesques and thin, delicate lines. Her major piece in this selection, Monastery (2006), also harks back to a painting, this time to a work by Ian Fairweather.
Another artist who demonstrates a greater variety of forms is Kevin Norton, who has been a powerful influence on young sculptors studying in Wollongong. His six pieces in this show are finely balanced compositions full of subtle touches. It’s a pleasure to observe the way one component joins with another or delimits a space within the work. One can sense the hours that have gone into each construction, with Norton pondering the precise angle of a plane or the fold in a piece of metal. The result is a set of sculptures that blends industrial and organic elements in the most graceful manner.
If personal taste counts for anything, I thought Hopmeier, King and Norton were the stand-out performers in this group. Yet this is partly due to the selection of work. Figures such as Paul Selwood and James Rogers have shown themselves to be just as capable of creating surprising, innovative forms, but there is a slightly repetitive dimension to their Sculpture City contributions. To see Rogers in a different mood one must visit the New England community of Walcha, where his massive Song Cycle (2001), stands at the intersection of the four roads leading into town.
Paul Selwood’s Cadence (2011) is the largest piece in the show. A series of interlocking half-circles painted an imposing shade of blue – it dominates the centre of the gallery. There is the same architectonic play one finds in the design of the Sydney Opera House, but in this case the curving planes are locked in mortal combat. The sculpture appears to close in on itself, its hermetic tendencies contradicted by the bright blue paint job.
Repetition is also a concern with Paul Bacon and Hui Selwood, who have both hit upon sculptural languages that are a little too comfortable for such a tight selection. Bacon’s works have a skeletal feeling, while Selwood takes a more totemic approach.
There’s nothing so methodical about Michael Snape, who plays the maverick. His large sculpture, Flower (2013), features five rusty metal discs arranged around a central disc, the whole supported by an iron stalk extending at an angle to the floor. The work is almost brutal in its simplicity, turning a schematic flower into something resembling an anchor.
Snape’s Flower is pretty ugly rather than pretty. Chris Hodges has no such scruples about making work that flaunts its own elegance. In Garden (2013) he has created a flower silhouette reminiscent of a Matisse paper cut. As Hodges’s works have grown progressively more minimal he has acquired the habit of shining a strong light on a piece and letting the shadows do much of the work. This show could have been hung in a way that made more of this tendency.
Anne Ferguson, as is almost invariably the case, is the odd one out. Aside from the fact that she is the only artist working in the unforgiving medium of marble, her sculptures all feel like fragments – extracts from some larger entity that remains out of our reach. Painted door (1991) could be an architectural study from a Sienese painting, while Plateau of wings (2010) is a landscape. But these are superficial associations. She uses the most robust materials to generate ambiguity rather than monumental stasis.
After the S.H. Ervin, viewers might try the Art Gallery of NSW, where one enters the front door only to be leapt upon by three people dressed as attendants, who dance around and sing: “This is so contemporary, contemporary!”
Yes, it’s a piece by British-German artist, Tino Seghal, contemporary art’s current poster boy – brought to us as the 29th Kaldor Public Art Project. It’s not a sculpture, and according to the artist, it’s not even performance. It’s a “constructed situation”. This is Tino’s winning idea. As soon as the international art crowd heard the phrase, they cried: “That’s just what we’ve been waiting for – a constructed situation! Performance Art is so Last Year.” In a flash, Seghalian situations have spread all over the world, picking up the Golden Lion at the 2013 Venice Biennale.
To those on less intimate terms with the Zeitgeist, This is So Contemporary may seem like the silliest thing ever to be seen at the AGNSW. But don’t be so quick to judge. The work does raise some important philosophical questions. For instance: “Who should feel most embarrassed: the performers or their victims?”
S.H.Ervin Gallery, until 2 March
Tino Seghal: This is So Contemporary
Art Gallery of NSW, until 23 February
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, Saturday 15 February, 2014