Exhibitions: Charge of the bronze brigade

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Joel Shapiro: Sculptures 1974-1999

Yorkshire Sculpture Park

It isn't every day that you find yourself as overwhelmingly wrong about someone as I had been about Joel Shapiro. Insofar as I had thought about the 58-year-old Shapiro at all, it was less in terms of what he was than of what he was not: not Donald Judd, for example, nor Carl Andre, though there was something about his work that suggested that he would have been happy to have been either, had they not inconveniently beaten him to it. Since they had, the New Yorker seemed content to opt for the next best thing, namely harnessing Judd and Andre's blocky Sixties minimalism to - of all sculptural subjects - the human form.

As marriages went, it made that of Michael Jackson and Lisa-Marie Presley look judicious. Photographs of Shapiro's works (the last actual showing of his sculptures in London took place nearly 20 years ago) depicted endless cuboid bronze men striding irritatingly out across plazas, like Keith Haring figures enlivened by Picasso, or Barry Flanagan bunny rabbits by Braque. I was not a fan.

And thus the dangers of making snap judgements about art from art books. After visiting the Yorkshire Sculpture Park's new exhibition of Shapiro's work, I am happy to admit that I was entirely wrong about it. The YSP's show will certainly count as one of the best I have seen this year, and Shapiro's sculptures, viewed in their impressive flesh, are a revelation.

To begin with the aforementioned bronze men. Yes, they are about the marriage of cubic minimalism and the human form, although they are not, as I had supposed, about the imprudent use of the one to portray the other. In fact, Shapiro's sculptures are not about portrayal at all. Like Meret Oppenheim's fur teacups, they tease the viewer by presenting a variety of familiar things - cubic shapes and human figures and the idea of figurative representation - run together in such a way as to make each of them seem uncanny. "I know that the way two things come together is significant," is a typical Shapiro dictum, and his bronze men show it.

As if to alert you to the significance of connections in his work, Shapiro's bronze men are all about joints. Examine the first in the YSP's sequence of outdoor sculptures (the sculptor, troublesomely, does not give titles to his pieces, which makes precise geographical location difficult) and you may marvel at what the work's distantly humanoid shape invites you to think of as its waist. The joints between legs and trunk are clearly load-bearing, yet their articulation is worryingly fragile, an Escherish jigsaw of slight overlaps and acute angles that gives the sculpture's massive contrapposto a feeling of teetering imbalance. Just to add to the joke, most of these joints are not actually joints at all. Shapiro's preference is to cast his works in as few pieces as possible, and the angles and overlaps of the figure's middle section are largely decorative. Shapiro's interest in the human form has less to do with any aesthetic curiosity about the subject itself than with the physics that makes it hang improbably together in space.

There are other important things about Shapiro's bronze men that do not show up in photographs, among them the historical debate between how they are made and what they are made of. Tucked away in the YSP's shrubbery is a work from 1987, a single box on spindly legs. Look at it closely and you will see that the bronze from which the piece is made has been cast in wooden moulds: the grain of the timber is still visible on the sculpture's patinated surfaces, particularly those of the suspended box. The work being all about the tension between lightness and weight, gravity and its defiance, this confusion over precisely what the piece is made out of adds to the tease. Something that is definitely lost in photographs of Shapiro's work is their humour: not jokiness but wit, a discreet but purposeful tricking of the eye.

The sculpture in the shrubbery also suggests another novel quality in Shapiro's oeuvre, namely a growing tendency on its part to explode itself. His big bronze men - dating largely from the 1970s and 1980s - were all about the articulation of weight. Shapiro's latest sculptures, by way of contrast, are altogether more concerned with ideas of weightlessness. ("I'm not so interested in gravity now," says Shapiro on the statutory exhibition video. It seems something of an understatement.) The newest works are in aluminium and stainless steel, materials associated with flight. One, in the YSP's formal garden, dynamites the cubic arms and legs of the bronze plaza men and hurls them into the air, tracing their trajectory through space like a kind of sculptural Eadweard Muybridge.

This tendency is at its most extreme in Shapiro's new wooden sculptures, displayed in a small but excellently curated show in the YSP's Pavilion Gallery. Walking through the first room is like witnessing a choreographed explosion: the dense, blocky form of the earliest piece on display - a sculpture from 1993 - is dismembered into the plywood stabile of 1999, the thin struts supporting its exploded blocks also suggesting the flight that put them where they are.

Shapiro's new work is extraordinarily poised, a Poussinesque distallation of stillness from the suggestion of movement. Although the public-art market probably means that he will continue to produce outdoor sculpture in metal, you can't help feeling that wood is his natural material and the great indoors his proper urban milieu.

It seems perverse to think of Shapiro's bronzes as having somehow acted as maquettes for his wooden sculptures rather than the other way around; but then intelligent perversity is probably where his genius lies.

`Joel Shapiro: Sculptures 1974- 1999', Yorkshire Sculpture Park, West Bretton (01924 830579), to 17 October

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