The taste myth

The trouble with Elizabeth Frink, says Tom Lubbock, is that her work is usually too artistic. Perhaps that's why the big boys dislike her. But never mind. She's much more interested in the ordinary man in the park anyway
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Elizabeth Frink isn't quite good taste. No inverted commas; I'm afraid I agree with this snotty sentiment - a little reluctantly, because it is evidently the mainstream view. The sculptor died in 1993, aged 62, and though she had and has an enthusiastic public, it is very unlikely that she'd get recognition with a big show at (say) the Tate or Hayward Galleries. But others feel she's major. And if you feel that way too, then there's currently a large Frink retrospective as part of the Salisbury Festival.

The exhibition is a scattered affair, and tries not to be anything so sequestered as an exhibition. Frink had hoped that her work be seen in the midst of life and in an ancient setting, and one of her pieces, the Walking Madonna, is already a permanent occupant of the Salisbury Cathedral Close. Now it has company. Sculptures of men and animals are dotted around the lawns of the Close, in the grounds of some surrounding properties, and turn up at many points inside the Cathedral itself. They've been released into the community, so that the casual tourist can't help bumping into some of them, while the methodical art-visitor is bound to miss one or two. There's also a rather crammed show of smaller pieces in the gallery attached to the Salisbury library, including some of her earliest works.

Frink found success quickly, in her early twenties, and at first it was mainstream. She was bought by the Tate, and grouped with a Fifties sculptural movement known as Geometry of Fear - a wonderful name for an art movement. Its trademark was bulky figures with fractured surfaces set on skeletal legs. But these pieces from what was Frink's most "respectable" phase are now the most dated, period anguish at its most theatrical, in which human and animal forms painfully evolve and metamorphose, wracked and blindly straining out of imprisoning bogs of matter. These works conclude with Judas, presently placed hard by the Cathedral. It seems to be a claggy memory of Rodin's Balzac, a hunched-up head and torso set on a pair of strange, slim-line gumboots.

Now you might say that Frink's work is dated all through, in this sense: it always wants to be mythic, to be archetypal and universal, about Man with a capital M, and this deliberately abstract humanism is a typically Fifties aspiration, found also in (say) absurdist drama, Wieland Wagner's Bayreuth productions or the ideology of Unesco. In the Fifties themselves, Frink was involved with fashionable post-war imagery. But from the mid- Sixties she left art-fashion behind completely, and forged her own myths.

Her subject was Man, but specifically it was men. Almost all her figures are male, either male heads or naked male bodies; the Madonna, heavily clothed, is the exception. I can't immediately think of another modern sculptor who was so gender-single-minded (perhaps Maillol only did women), but there's nothing pointedly feminist in her approach, no doing men back, and nothing pointedly sexy either. The male body seems simply to be her natural expressive form.

These figures are essentially realistic, formally simplified but without radical distortions. They have a distinctive anatomy or power and pathos, achieved through shifts of scale and articulation. The torso is just too big for the legs. The head is just too big for the torso. Strong guys and at the same time a little too helplessly large for themselves, which is then stressed by the way Frink introduces strategic points of weakness, a slight dislocation at the shoulders, or a fragile spindliness somewhere in the arms or legs. The point is that one should feel tender about powerfulness. And though they have rough touches, there's definitely an Olympic spirit of chaste manliness running through them.

The heads, whether separate or attached, are up to similar mixed feelings. The blunt, rounded bonces make them stupid or brutish. The long faces with their enormous jaws are solemn and sagacious. They rise out of massive cooling-tower necks, but their straight profile keep them noble. Frink can turn these devices to open brutality or open sob-stuff. The series of Goggle Heads from the late Sixties represent the universal fascist. The eyes are blanked out with dark glasses that sort of merge with the flesh, but the bronze here is burnished to a high reflective finish. The expressions are mean and set, and the faces being too big for its features is here made into dehumanised expressionlessness, a lump that can't feel.

But it can go quite the other way. The Tribute heads from the mid-Seventies are dedicated to Amnesty International and represent the universal prisoner of conscience. Here all is suffering, man of sorrows - very near, indeed, to Max von Sydow as The King of Kings. The eyes are deep cut and the heavy lids lie closed, the mouths wince tenderly, and the overlargeness of the face now signifies the soul trapped in its poor flesh.

Why do we say that Frink is not quite good taste? For a familiar reason: the work is actually too tasteful. It has a repertoire of very straightforward emotional pitches, which are really Hollywood melodrama or the academic body beautiful. But it smoothes them over, generalises them, makes them artistic, with soft modernist techniques - a bit of curvaceous volume making borrowed from Brancusi or Moore, which doesn't have anything to do with making volumes, is simply there to lend art-dignity and a sense of primal archetypicality.

And having said Hollywood, when it comes to some of the later animal pieces, I have to say Disney. The two buffaloes, the little horses, the dogs - they have a cuddly roundedness of shape and big clumpy feet that make them suitable playmates for Bambi and Thumper. This aspect that is barely concealed or modified by the occasional stark jab.

But with one series of humans, from the late Eighties, things come good. In the Riace figures - adapted from some classical Greek bronzes - and the accompanying Seated Man, it's as if Frink for once sees what she's up to, abandons the attempt to be archetypal, and just does something odd. The odd thing about these men is their frank and rather funny yobbishness.

The antique pose is there, but the gestures that once held spear and shield now become hovering half-clenched fists, and the posture that of characters turning round from the bar in the direction of some presumed threat or insult. The faces now have that expression of wounded and slightly stupefied outrage appropriate to the occasion (are you looking at me? etc). And with this Frink, who elsewhere makes such a business of being timeless, produces a sort of time-warp comedy. Ancient, mythical figures who find themselves in a contemporary farce.

And in the Library Gallery, there's another sign of surprising potentialities: Frink the down-player of expression. You find it, oddly enough, in a late self-portrait bust. It's sometimes observed that all Frinks heads are variants of her own, but the self-portrait actually reduces the familiar facial dramas. And, indeed, if you compare it to the very assertive and characterful face she presents to the camera, the physiognomy here is much more composed and doubtful. The right eye is wide, the left more sad, and they don't fall into focus. No significance is forced on to the features. She does herself unproud.

To 7 June in Salisbury library; to 19 June on the lawns