The Independent Collector: Sean Henry
John Windsor's guide to collecting contemporary art
Tuesday 29 September 1998
Sean Henry is their creator. His signature everyman sculpture, a painted and patinated cast bronze wearing a donkey jacket and crumpled trousers, stands his ground and folds his arms across his chest, in a belligerent pose.
The Welsh poet David Hart mingled with everyman in Henry's London studio. The poems they inspired him to write are to be published in November in a book about Henry's work by the Italian Circolo Degli Artisti, shortly before a solo exhibition in Faenza.
Henry, aged 33, is winner of this year's Villiers David Art Prize, worth pounds 8,000 for travel abroad. He is the first sculptor to win it. The judging committee of six (including Lord Linley, Noel Annesley, deputy chairman of Christie's International and William Packer, the art critic) observed that everyman, though still going nowhere, has come a long way. There is an early everyman holding a pistol at arms length. And there is the latest, still in soft clay, seated on a donkey with one arm outstretched, modelled on the early 16th century German sculpture "Christ Riding on a Donkey" by Parmesel.
Henry is undecided how to model the fingers of this one. He flips two of them up into a beatific gesture. Then he flips them down. Whatever he eventually decides, the fingers are unlikely to point the way.
He says: "I try to depict some essential truths. My figures are often on the edge of action - passive, but acutely aware of their surroundings, as well as their inability to affect or change them."
Everyman, and not only Henry's, is becoming more visible in the art world. Henry's figures are reminiscent of Ray Richardson's paintings of dense, muscular men in T-shirts leading bull terriers on leashes, Peter Howson's threatening male silhouettes and Stephen Conroy's paintings of strong men standing stock still on staircases, curling their lip at a world they can barely comprehend. An investigation into their origins would no doubt hit upon Josef Herman's bold monochromes of miners. And, of course, Giacometti's best-foot-forward sculptures.
Henry's show at the Air Gallery last summer was called "Up Against It" - a title that sums up everyman as he perceives him. "He is mass man," he says, "quirky, powerful, but not responsible for his actions."
The irony is that mass man - everyman - is out of date. You cannot buy donkey jackets as fashion wear, these days. The only men that still wear them are building workers. The folded arms of his "Donkey" everyman, hugging his donkey jacket, are, he explains, "holding on to the past".
"He knows he's foolish," he says, "he knows he's an ass". But "he's on his own, he's got to deal with it".
When Henry delivered one of his 32-inch tall "Donkeys" to its purchaser, a smart London office, he glanced back at him as he left and thought he heard him say: "You're not going to leave me here, are you?"
If Henry's sculptures are to earn a permanent place in art history it will be because of their mythic, iconic status - the image of an endangered species. The mass - the uneducated working class - has become a threatened minority. Everyman no longer has political clout. He has been reduced to adopting an all-purpose, muscular stance against the outside world.
But, as creators such as Henry know well, the divine courses through everyman. What sculpture will follow his divine everyman riding upon a donkey? It is a hard act of creation to follow.
Sean Henry has had eight solo shows in the past 10 years and has exhibited in group shows in Britain, Italy, the United States and Australia. Prices: pounds 1,500-pounds 18,000. He is represented by Davies and Tooth, 32 Dover Street, London W1 (0171-409 1516). David Hart's "Setting the Poem to Words" has just been published by Five Seasons Press at pounds 8.50
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