The Henry Moore Institute has long been renowned as a groundbreaking centre in the study of sculpture and artistic forms. It is unsurprising then that the multi-faceted work of Paul Neagu should find its way within these walls, as the institute welcomes one of the scenes most intriguing and sensory artists to come out of the Eastern bloc in the last century. The exhibition puts on display a wide variety of Neagu’s work spanning from 1968 to 1986 including sculptures, drawings, films, texts and archive material which convey the artist’s alternative approach to the visual arts, as is outlined in his ‘Palpable Art Manifesto’.
For Neagu, art is an expression of ‘desire in the face of the systems that attempt to inhibit it’, and such desire includes not just seeing with your eyes but with the involvement of all five senses, lending a sensualist approach to a traditionally visually dominated aesthetic. Such a physically orientated philosophy is reflected in Neagu’s manipulation of what he calls ‘tactile objects’, a series of physical mixed media objects which dominate a large part of the exhibition. These pieces often referred frequently to the importance of hands and the use of touch as a way of interacting with art, as works like ‘Tactile Object 1’ used a series of hollow wooden boxes which invite the viewer to place their hands inside. Another piece entitled ‘Tactile Object 2’ was displayed as a variety of cross-like shapes hanging from the ceiling in the middle of the room, here inviting the viewer to feel their way around the work as a form of physical artistic interaction.
Perhaps the centrepiece of the exhibition lies in Neagu’s ‘Nine Catalytic Stations,’ a series of sculptures aligned in a star formation which appropriate in some form or another his use of the tripod-like ‘Hyphen’ form as a structural base. These multi-dimensional sculptures purportedly represent the nine ‘Stations of the Cross’ in Christian orthodox iconography, as each piece reflects a differing iteration of Christ in both physical and symbolic form. What further embellishes this piece from his other work is its portrayal of Neagu’s final philosophical level; that of the cosmos as embodied in the star shape formation. Neagu believed in a complex cosmology divided between three levels: that of the natural earth, the intermediary of the human and analytic, and a final releasing dimension in which objects are appropriated and developed into a universal space.
Neagu sought then to defy gravity, and through his various works attempted to find a gateway to another aesthetic dimension. The work of the Romanian émigré maintains the ability to provoke serious reflection on artistic forms as we know them, which challenges us as viewers to actively engage and reflect upon his art in a more demanding and visceral manner. It is this lure of Neagu which ensures that he will continue to be seen as a pivotal figure in the avant-garde world of sculpture, defying simple categorisations and understandings through his multi-sensual artwork.