Sand, Sisyphus and Sculpture

Sisyphean TractorOn Crosby Beach there is a tractor driver whose job it is to scoop up the sand that has encroached on the coastal paths and deposit it back on the beach.  Each day the wind and tide move it inland again.  Every time I see him at work, it puts me in mind of the Greek mythological legend of Sisyphus, which is, of course, a metaphor for the futility of so many things in life.  He was condemned to repeat into eternity the task of pushing an immense boulder up a hill, only for it to roll down again when it nears the top.  The parallel of trying to hold back the sand on the beach is obvious; and yet, as with a lot of daily chores and tasks that have an endless cycle of repetition, without them being carried out chaos could easily ensue.  And I suppose that at least this one has the benefit of being carried out in a beautiful location.

Manchester Sculpture GeneralAway from such philosophical musings, I recently had the pleasure of going to Manchester’s City Gallery for the first time.  It is another of the majestic buildings, in which the North West of England is so rich.  I went to see a sculpture exhibition, Out of the Crate, which turned out to be a real gem. 

The aim of it is to provide the viewer with an opportunity to investigate sculpture through access to stored collections andCrated Sculpture archival material.  It has been set out over three rooms so that it is part exhibition, part storage room and part research space.  There are works in a wide range of materials, including marble, bronze, wood, glass, ceramic and paper, in a variety of sizes and shapes and different techniques of making.

Alfred StevensSeated Youth 1980.265, Alfred Stevens.1200x1200

Seated Youth by Alfred Stevens

Like most galleries and museums, the City Gallery has a large collection of works that have rarely been seen this century.  Less than 3 percent have been on display but with this exhibition there is a chance to see a quarter of the 500 sculptures in the collection.  It is like being given privileged access to the storeroom.  Objects are displayed on industrial racks, in glass-fronted cupboards, on pallets and in open crates. They are grouped according to size and/or material and weight.  This is in contrast to the conventional gallery display when the curators are more usually guided by themes or chronology.  

Nude Henri Gaudier-Brzeska 1946.160.1200x1200

Nude by Henri Gaudier-Brezska

One of the first sculptures one comes upon is Rodin’s Portrait of Victor Hugo.  It is almost more powerful to see it contained in a crate, heavily strapped in, as if it were the only way to control its immense energy.  All the big names are here, ranging from antiquity to the present day.  There are also works by several sculptors I hadn’t heard of before, among them Alan Lydiat Durst, Elizabeth Andrews and Maria Petrie.  The latter’s Portrait Study was one of my favourites, but if I’d had to choose one to take home with me it would have been Henri Gaudier-Brzeska’s Nude, a beautiful small study in white marble.  

There are several excellent examples of work by Alfred Stevens, the British sculptor born into the 19th century but who lived through modernist era to 1970. Barbara Hepworth’s Doves are touching in their simplicity and tenderness and reminded me of the pair of collar doves that frequent my garden. One of the most affecting scenes was to see one of them put its wing around the other as if in a loving embrace.

The research room has been set up like a detective’s cold case crime scene, with sculptures about which little is known under investigation.  The public’s help is sought here in helping the gallery find out not only the provenance of the pieces but in some cases the artist and/or the sitter. In opening up this research process more publicly, the aim is also to consider how a public gallery and its users can care for and use collections. 

I spent so long in this exhibition, thrilled to find such an eclectic collection of sculptures on display, that I only had time for a quick look at the rest of the gallery.  Ho hum.  I’ll just have to go back, which I can definitely say will be no great hardship.


Finding a way through the hype

One of the critical thinking tasks we were set at Art College was to write a review of an artwork that was the antithesis of what we liked.  It was a useful exercise because it forced us to look at the piece beyond personal taste and to focus instead on everything else: its context, the artist’s intent, the subject matter, the medium, the choice of materials, and so on.  

So it was in this frame of mind that I went to see the Keith Haring exhibition at Tate Liverpool, the first major UK showing of his work.  From the images I had seen, his work did not appeal to me in the slightest.  Something of my hesitancy on entering the exhibition must have shown; in an unsolicited comment, the gallery invigilator assured me that it wasn’t all to his taste but that the show had rightly received critical acclaim and he was sure I would come out the other end having found something positive.

UnknownUsually, I don’t read the Tate booklets until after I’ve seen an exhibition, wanting to experience the work without being influenced by someone else’s thinking.  But on this occasion it was more of a visual dictionary of the symbols that relentlessly appear in all Haring’s work, with quotes from him about why he uses them.  This was helpful because it gave some insight into their importance to him and why he used them so consistently throughout his short life.  

The Nuclear symbol, for example, came out of his experience of living through the 1962 Cuban Missile crisis and then in 1979 the USA’s worst nuclear reactor accident at Three Mile Island, which was not far from Haring’s hometown. Haring said: “Living under the threat of possible destruction in the form of nuclear war, etc., the most important thing to me is the present”.  

These notes went someway to contextualising the many facets of Haring’s activism, but it was the films of him working that finally gave me a way in to his art.  The performative element is what is missing in the paintings, which have been isolated from their context on the gallery walls.  In the films one sees the energy, the conviction and assuredness in all the mark-making, with the performance being an integral part of the outcome.  

In one film there is a superb dancer in the foreground, with Haring energetically painting away in the background, two performances almost choreographed but with Haring’s history of spontaneity, probably not.  In another film there is Grace Jones in 1987, on very high stilts wearing a ball-gown with a huge black and white skirt painted by Haring. Another film is typical of Jones’s bravado, showing Haring painting her near-naked body.

A lot of Haring’s output was shown in nightclubs and it is these that work best in this exhibition, where the Tate has recreated the context.  There is a prescient tribute to Gloria Vanderbilt, the American artist, author, actress, fashion designer, heiress, and socialite who died last month (June 2019).  It shows Haring dancing, laughing and kissing the lens until it is smeared with lipstick and his own image obscured.  In another club reconstruction, there is a room flooded with UV light and thumping 80’s soundtrack.  The UV effect took me back to my own disco days when the lights showed up every fleck of dust if you wore black and made your skin look tanned if you wore white.

At his peak, the streets and subways of New York were Haring’s canvases; his politically-charged art was everywhere, including in galleries.  I thought he would find it ironic for his work to be exhibited at somewhere as mainstream and prestigious as the Tate.  But it seems not.  Apparently he always wanted to make money and to be famous, very much enjoying being a gallery artist as well as being known on the street. 

But over and above all were the causes he sought to highlight through his art: equal rights, anti-racism, anti-nuclear and in his last years, against the prejudice surrounding HIV Aids, which led to his own death in 1990.   Sadly, these are all concerns that are relevant today and are still in need of such activism. 

The insistent sameness of Haring’s symbols was a stumbling block for me, seeming more like a brand or a logo than an artistic expression.  But in the end what came out of this exhibition was that the art itself couldn’t and shouldn’t be separated from the issues or its context. Coincidentally, this is one of the main aims of the Haring Foundation, which supports arts and educational institutions by funding exhibitions, educational programs, and publications that serve to contextualize and illuminate the artist’s work and philosophy.