Tortured, decapitated heads scream. Others stare impassive like masks. Yet more seem to be directly tracking your movements as you walk between them. No this isn’t an antique scene from Scooby-doo –although an equal mixture of the exaggerated, ‘mock-sinister’ and comic is present here- but in fact the most recent exhibition to be held at the Hepworth Gallery in Wakefield.
The room outlined above comprises nine impressive, imposing sculptural works that riff on the problem of representing the human form, with emphasis on the head. Noticeable in many of the more contemporary works is a definite sense of freedom and humour.
Rebecca Warren’s playful sculpture is an unfired writhing clay figure atop what can only be described as a giant rocket-shaped breast. This ‘rough and ready approach’ is echoed in the deliberately lumpy plaster masks of Thomas Houseago’s hulking male figures. Crude means of production combined with irreverence are likewise visible with Aaron Curry’s interlocking wooden shapes that conjure an abstract figure giving the middle finger to its own description plaque in the corner. And despite the foreknowledge of Louise Bourgeouis’ art, inspired by trauma, surrounded by this flippancy her head of stitched fabric cannot resemble anything but a very angry muppet.
The curatorial strategy has been to try and trace a clear trend in contemporary sculpture for a visceral, DIY aesthetic back to a pinnacle of neo-classical sculpture: Rodin (think The Kiss, The Thinker)
The curatorial strategy has been to try and trace a clear trend in contemporary sculpture for a visceral, DIY aesthetic back to a pinnacle of neo-classical sculpture: Rodin (think The Kiss, The Thinker), attempting at the same time to draw parallels between physical states and psychological ones. The enigmatic title to the exhibition: To Hope, To Tremble, To Live, taken from Rodin’s ‘testaments’ is relevant in its foregrounding of the importance of lived experience in the making of art. A quieter room houses gentler sculptures and works on paper (and also disappointing name-drops such as a Warhol drawing and a photo of Damien Hirst in the morgue). It is here that we also find the stated starting point for the exhibition- a work by Jules-Aime Dalou, titled ‘La Boulonnaise’.
This obscure historical link seems a little contrived and superficial- it’s as if the curators are simply saying ‘here is an accomplished head from the 1870s sculpted in marble, and here are more recent heads, compare and contrast’; instead of suggesting artistic or thematic lineage it underlines more forcefully the different set of problems contemporary sculpture has faced -accelerated production and mass production techniques, the changing value of matter and social engagement.
Nevertheless drawn from the private David Roberts collection, this is the first time these contemporary and post-1950 works have been shown in a public gallery north of London and it is therefore an exciting opportunity for this ‘jewel in the cultural crown’ of Yorkshire and for visitors. Although it is possible that the various physical and conceptual structures surrounding the works here have robbed them of their individual strength, it is great to see such vital and exciting works together under one roof. Well worth a look.