Sculptura: Vision and Form
21st October – 2nd November 2019
Artists featured in exhibition: Viv Astling, Andrew Coates, Steve Evans, George Jackson, Hannah Northam, Don Ratcliffe, Rachel Ricketts, Michele White
In the sixteenth century, largely in opposition to Leonardo da Vinci’s assertion that painting is the superior visual art due to its intellectual pre-eminence, Benvenuto Cellini pronounced that sculpture is “… eight times as great as any other art based on drawing because a statue has eight views, and they must all be equally good.” Sculptura provided eight examples of individual creativity with the potential, therefore, for up to sixty-four aesthetically pleasing aspects suitably explored in a variety of sculptural media.
Until the development of installation methods of assemblage in the 1970’s, sculpture tended to be a poor relation to the two dimensional arts of painting and printmaking. This is still the case in the Royal Birmingham Society of Artists, and perhaps Sculptura, a group within a group, aimed at least partially to address this imbalance and enhance the place of sculpture in the Society’s ambience.
One of the characteristics of working in three dimensions is that the constraints inherent in crafting the various mediums sometimes mitigates against achieving precisely, pre-determined goals. Creative surprise, therefore, is invariably a positive value when working and the previously unknown can often feature as an element in the final outcome. Indeed, for some makers such a possibility is built into the working process from the outset. This is not merely the inadvertent slip of the chisel or knife, although such accidents can be creatively potent, but unexpected insights often result when aesthetic sensibilities are heightened and therefore more receptive to recognising new experience – an Archimedes’ ‘Eureka’ moment. This exhibition provided instances of such creative surprise. It profoundly transformed the physical space, and the viewer with an alert mind and hungry for visual sensation, could not fail to be impressed by the quality and range of the sculptural stimulation on offer.
Perhaps the sheer range and complexity of media both encourage and allow for wide-ranging imaginative responses, as each artist pursued an individual pathway informed by a profound understanding of an aspect or aspects of a wider visual culture. The receptive spectator, therefore, may well have responded to some or all of the following:
The translucent magic of English Alabaster, its subtle carving and depth of texture and colour revealed and enlivened by the refraction of light;
The recognition and exploration of the qualities of things, towards the production of structures which act as a kind of three dimensional story telling; the engineered discipline of geometry defining three dimensional space by means of a cat’s cradle of intersecting nylon thread;
Raku fired winged vessels, their lids surmounted by long necked ‘grotesques’ much like those favoured by Gothic architectural carvers;
Powerful modelling coupled with meticulous attention to detail and a willingness to extend subject matter beyond the usual, successfully evoked profound discomfort; direct carving of deciduous hardwood root boles as a skillful and sensitive revelation of their innate qualities of pattern, texture, rough and smoothly polished;
The poetry of a mysterious butterfly winged horse in a sea of blooms, a domed glass enclosure containing and reflecting its environment; and the exquisitely crafted arrangement of the exalted qualities of precious metals and gemstones as an analogy for a powerful visual experience.
Subjects ranged from the sublime to the bizarre – from abstract works which satisfy both our visceral and intellectual sensibilities through their search for formal perfection, to idiosyncrasies which delight, uplift and amuse, their wit causing the mouth to tremble and the eyes to narrow and dilate in turn. Animals and birds abounded: an imperious lion, boxing hares, a small but statuesque bronze horse, a sheep and a ram as monuments surmounting an imagined landscape;
Malicious, soaring, curious and comical birds, a formalised and a threatening bird man, and bird headed dolls with moveable limbs as witty analogies for ‘God’s winged messengers’;
Landscapes were carved and constructed from the stuff of landscape and its botanical contents; ‘objets trouvé’ appeared in various guises; imaginatively and systematically assembled linear structures re-constituted gallery spaces; and some works owed allegiance to classical archetypes.
Sound craftsmanship was a central element, mastery having been achieved through sustained and thoughtful work – hard won and honed over years. This mastery can only be accomplished by means of a symbiotic relationship as a parallel development involving an increasing awareness of what constitutes good practice, with a deeper understanding of the nature and richness of the visual arts themselves. This exhibition provided in practice a paradigm of the results of such a relationship. I am not suggesting here that the works challenge the sublimity of such innovative luminaries as Jacob Epstein, Naum Gabo, Barbara Hepworth, Paul Klee, Henry Moore, Pablo Picasso and Auguste Rodin, although that has to be our aim, but I am suggesting that Sculptura artists are worthy followers whose work demands serious and prolonged attention.
Sculptura enjoyed the luxury of forward planning and policy was determined by means of democratic discussion over a period of eighteen months. This was informed throughout by a growing respect for each other’s diverse perceptual, intellectual and cultural values. Indeed, this dynamic inspired the exhibition’s presentation, as curation, rather than competitive, was a group venture, a community, striving for coherence, and working towards the common goal of excellence. As a sometime Art Educator I felt privileged to be a member of such a group of committed artists.
Perhaps it is too fanciful to suggest that the artists involved would agree with the maxim ‘Laborare est Orare’ (To work is to pray) as presented on a Ray Finch plate in c. 1940, but all would agree with Noel Coward’s assertion that ‘work is more fun than fun.’ Finally, however, a Friend of the Birmingham museums unsolicited response to the exhibition was: “I have always liked painting, but after tonight I thought sculpture! What have I been missing?”
By Andrew Coates RRBSA, M.A.