Exhibitions of sculpture are notoriously hard to pull off. But a show of British abstract work succeeds where others failed
AT THIS time last year, Flowers East in Lon-don put on an excellent survey of contemporary British abstract painting. Now we have a sequel, a show devoted to non-representational sculpture. This exhibition is not quite as telling, mainly because of the difficulties of borrowing and installing three-dimensional work. But "British Abstract Art Part 2: Sculpture" isn't disappointing. It tantalises, as did its predecessor, making one realise how much new art simply goes unseen.
Only rarely, for instance, do we have the sight of a recent sculpture by Tim Scott. He ought to be one of the most famous sculptors in the world, because he's one of the best. In fact he's rather obscure. Perhaps that's the way he likes it, but Scott's seclusion may have something to do with the nature of his art. Because he is so seldom dramatic, he appears to be modest. He is not concerned with being radical, therefore seems to some people to be conservative. The truth is that Scott is an idealist with a very firm and uncompromising grasp of beauty. His steel piece Song for Adele VI may look at first as though it were too much arranged. Longer acquaintance reveals that it has been summoned from deep feeling.
Although it's open and welded, Song for Adele VI puts one in mind of sculpture that has been modelled from clay. Furthermore, it is only after examination that the piece sheds its initial appearance of being figurative. A few years ago, Scott did have an intense phase of making art from or of the body. It was an enthusiasm that troubled many of his friends. Now, though, we find that he has employed that period to strengthen his abstraction. His sculpture today is more dense and tactile. Song for Adele VI is one of a series, and I wish that we could see them together.
It's interesting that other abstract sculptors from St Martin's in the 1960s should have recently turned to the human body. Phillip King was probably the first to do so. Then we had Caro's "Trojan Wars" series. I don't think this development meant a change of heart about abstraction. The artists concerned seem to have absorbed figuration as though they had suddenly found it to be a food. And maybe architecture was an equal interest. King's Obelisk Drift is architectural. Caro's Moonlight Folly, stained a nice ivory colour, relates to his "sculpitecture". I scarcely know what to say about William Tucker's vaguely equine Kronos because I don't know what he's driving at, except perhaps to be part of a pediment. I do think he should look to women for inspiration rather than to horses.
The so-whattishness of Tucker's sculpture contrasts with the desire of many other artists to intrigue and beguile. Edward Allington has embedded a reproduction of a classical statue within a complicated box structure. Eilis O'Con- nell's Collar Creel plays on the differences between ethnic objects of use and new objects of fashion. It looks like something to do with Blasket Islands fishing, yet has surfaced from Woolworth's. Two other women artists, Veronica Ryan and Cathy De Monchaux, also present sculptures that depend on the idea of a container. This is something of a cliche in feminist art at the moment, yet not, so far, a harmful one.
Indeed, De Monchaux might do a lot more with her boxes and enveloping folds of velvet plush. A larger size would help. She ought to be thinking of opera sets rather than handbags. There's a baroque element in her sensibility that needs fuller expression. It looks to me as though British sculpture in general is going towards the baroque, trusting in extravagance and mannerism, caring little about taste, "truth to materials" or other paternal restraints. Dave King's piece is of this sort. So is Andrew Sabin's. I don't say that their work is good, merely note the phenomenon while remarking that abstract sculptors have much more opportunity for wild excesses than their figurative brothers and sisters.
We might find other trends. The main photo shows Phillip King in the foreground, then William Turnbull's Duct, with John Gibbons's Beginning in the background. King has been considering classical and perhaps oriental art. Turnbull is a classicist who is perhaps the most perfect inheritor of the spirit of Brancusi. As for the much younger Gibbons - regular readers of this column will know that I think him the best of today's middle-generation sculptors. His wonderful Beginning may give the impression (especially in a photo) of a sculpture that is wilful, over-large or inconsequential, as baroque art so often is. Not so. Here is a classic: lucid, dignified and, despite its title, elegiac.
! "British Abstract Art Part 2: Sculpture": Flowers East, E8, 0181 985 3333, to 3 Sept.
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