‘at least sculpture is unnameable
at least sculpture may name’
Barry Flanagan revelled in the malleability of language and meaning, and the early concrete poetry he produced as a student would come to underpin his restless questioning of what sculpture was and could be.
Frequently placed within a group of artists such as John Latham and Bruce McLean, who became known under the banner of Conceptual Art, Flanagan and his St Martins contemporaries pushed against the conventions of sculpture. This led to the infamous 1966 happening where Flanagan and his then tutor Latham chewed up a copy of formalist art historian Clement Greenberg’s ‘Art and Culture’; perhaps the most subversive act of concrete poetry to date.
‘Animal, Vegetable, Mineral’ at Waddington Custot Galleries is curated by Dr Jo Melvin, and highlights both Flanagan’s early experimentation with materials such as rope and sand, and his later works in bronze and marble. Its title borrows from a review of Flanagan’s first solo exhibition in London in 1966. The archival, anecdotal and playful quality of the exhibition’s framing reveals much about Flanagan’s process, where language is posited as a central motif of his whimsical sculptural practice.
Vitrines display a series of Flanagan’s sketches, photographs and early concrete poetry. Hessian canvases hang limply from wooden batons; winding incisions in the fabric create sagging protrusions. Alongside them, maquettes of stone sculptures echo the drooping hessian forms, eloquently demonstrating Flanagan’s magpie-like use of material and continuity of form.
In the adjacent gallery, shapeless hessian cloth sacks filled with sand languish abjectly on the floor, with gravity left to determine their resting form. Tubular, serpentine forms pile up on top of one another, their lack of referent affecting unease. Cryptic titles such as ‘4 rahsb 2 ’67’ further cloud interpretive meaning. Flanagan’s early approach to sculpture and material had strong parallels with Land Art. He would go on to participate in the seminal group exhibitions ‘When Attitudes Become Form’ in Bern, and ‘Op Losse Schroeven’ at the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, both in 1969.
Flanagan’s later interest in materials such as bronze for their permanence and weighty connotations in art history has tended to draw less attention. This exhibition includes a range of abstract, sinuous sculptures he created from sheet metal and marble, before a sudden shift to figurative work in 1979. He created bronze casts of hares dancing, flitting and jumping, tethered to a plinth or stand. Widely dismissed as a slide into artistic irrelevance, the inclusion of a hare sculpture feels like a curatorial wry smile, serving to highlight Flanagan’s commitment both to material exploration and to the unexpected. With this move, Melvin reminds us of Flanagan’s consistently playful, absurdist touch.
The hare comes to symbolise Flanagan’s constant darting between materials and the elusive field of meaning that forms around his work, where the concreteness of his language loosened the stability of his sculpture. Flanagan’s playfulness, linguistic or otherwise, was part of a serious enquiry: he constantly poked fun at sculpture and in doing this, asked why it continues to matter so much.