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Paul de Monchaux, Fixing Memory: Sculpture 1986 – 2013, The Piper Gallery, London


According to Mayan legend, The Pyramid Of The Magician was created over a single night. Some versions state that the magician was a dwarf, hatched out of an egg under the spell of his mother, a witch.

The pyramid is located in the ancient city of Uxmal in Yucatán, Mexico, and provides the inspiration for a bronze sculpture by Montreal-born, London-based artist Paul de Monchaux, 78.

While the pyramid is the largest structure in Uxmal, de Monchaux’s work is less than half a metre tall. The mythical images that adorn the walls of the original are absent here. The stairs of de Monchaux’s sculpture, Uxmal (2008), tilt downwards at a queasy angle. The animistic power of the pyramid is exchanged for smooth, cold form.

De Monchaux has said that “formal invention alone can generate emotional responses that have no names.” Indeed, it is difficult to describe his “sculpture city.” These works appear self-contained to the point of being closed off entirely. Rather than emotion, they generate a sense of clean and total control.

This is de Monchaux’s first exhibition in a private gallery. He was Head of Fine Art at Camberwell until he retired in 1986, and has created several publically commissioned sculptures, including Symmetry (1993), the Wilfred Owen memorial at Shrewsbury Abbey.

The Piper Gallery is unique for representing artists whose careers span 40 years or more yet have been overlooked due to the art market’s emphasis on youth. Megan Piper, 28, is a talented gallerist but this exhibition doesn’t quite hit the mark.

Volute III (2008) is a black bronze sculpture that continues the Mayan theme in the form of a serpent curling back on itself. Like the pyramid, it uses the visual language of myth and symbol yet denies such meaning.

De Monchaux describes himself as a “figurative sculptor,” responding to “things” rather than ideas. These works do not appear figurative but refer to the human body in an oblique way.  

Song School (2009) hints at lovers conjoined, while the delicate dips and divisions of Ellipse (2005) recall the roundness of a Henry Moore, who likewise was influenced by pre-Columbian art.

Moore’s early reclining female figures were indebted to a photograph that he came across in 1922 of Chacmool, a carving of the Mayan rain spirit.

There is a stillness to these works. But their refusal to yield much to the viewer is frustrating rather than mysterious.