United Enemies, review by Gill Park
In the ‘60s and ‘70s, when structures across the western world were being dismantled, so too the notion of sculpture was being prodded, pushed, unpacked and put back together again in new and interesting ways. It was an exciting time for sculpture, defined by a spirit of unrest and revolution. This spirit was echoed in the radicalisation of the art school, with colleges like St Martin’s transforming the way sculpture (and art across the disciplines) was taught.
‘United Enemies’ explores this fertile, but much unmined territory, through an exhibition designed to unsettle common assumptions about sculpture. On entering the exhibition (after first passing Roelof Louw’s much talked about ‘help yourself’ pyramid of oranges in the Institute’s reception area) visitors are confronted by clusters of portable sculptures, arranged across two large tables. Contrasting materials and competing intentions define this selection where constructivists, conceptualists and formalists jostle for attention. In their scale, the works bring focus to their tactile qualities, indicating the role of the hand in making and looking.
In contrast are several wall-based pieces that defy the act of object making. One such work is Keith Arnatt’s ‘Art as an Act of Retraction’ (1972) a series of black and white photographs that document the artist, quite literally, eating his words. A reference to the dematerialisation of sculpture, the hand in Arnatt’s work does not craft or cast, but is the centre of a more conceptual undertaking, a proposition for a new kind of creativity.
Next to Arnatt is Shirley Cameron ‘s ‘Washing the Twins’ (1977) a photographic recording of her tongue-in-cheek performance with Angela Carter, in which a pair of bronze twins were washed and dressed while Cameron washed her own (real) twin daughters. It is funny and provocative, dealing with notions of permanence and impermanence and poking gentle fun at the conventions of sculpture.
Hanging, perching, leaning, twisting, the sculpture in United Enemies rebels against the static austerity of its modernist precursors. Where artists like Cameron took to performing the body as sculpture, this was also the era of kinetic sculpture and the construction of ‘performing objects’. In Barry Martin’s ‘Programmed Shape Development’ (1968) a series of metal disks rotate, recomposing at the press of a button. It reflects the artist’s interest in perceptual psychology, and the way viewers behave in front of a work.
The exhibition is spread across the Institute’s three main galleries, each hinging upon a different theme. While the first gallery explores ‘Manual Thinking’ - the relationship between head and hand, the second space, ‘Standing,’ wrestles with the position of the figure in an era when artists largely contested the vertical form. Standing defiantly in the space is Garth Evans’ ‘Maid of Honour’ (1965) a mischievous maypole structure which, though formally abstract, is undeniably upright and unable to shake its figurative associations. There is also Leonard McComb’s ‘Young man Standing,’ (1963-83) a bronze rendering of a young male nude that is not simply a formalist representation but expresses the haptic quality of sculpture. The bronze figure, with its gilded surface has a pulsing, vibrant energy, reflecting the spirit of the age as it waits expectantly, impatiently, for a new world to come.
The show finishes in the third space, subtitled ‘Groundwork’ which pushes outside of the gallery walls to what Bruce Maclean names ‘Floataway, throwaway, blowaway, giveaway works.’ A time when sculpture went ‘off plinth’, practices such as ‘land art’ emerged, when the ground became the subject of sculptural attention, with important works by Ivor Abrahams, Ed Herring and Maclean himself. A highlight in this section is Richard Long’s ‘An English Frontier’ (1972) a photographic album of his walks with artists along Hadrian’s Wall, which brings focus not only to the new interest in collaborative methodologies, but also to the two-dimensional representation of ground-based work.
‘United Enemies’ is an important exhibition, containing some old friends and lesser-known names. It gives weight to a generation of artists who had a tremendous impact upon the ongoing understanding and problematising of sculpture in Britain. The artists (more than fifty in all) are each following different, often conflicting, trajectories but all show a common commitment to change, defined by an experimentation with materials and an interaction with other disciplines. United Enemies indeed.