Putting the Rabbit in the Hat
One of the most interesting touring shows around this summer is an Arts Council exhibition that contains small works by more than 40 British sculptors. The exhibition is drawn from the period just before the emergence of the YBA’s. It includes pieces that deal with the re-contextualisation of objects and the exploration of an intermediate area that Joseph Kosuth described as ‘neither painting nor sculpture’. Part of the reason that they seem to occupy this artistic middle ground is that they are wall-based or placed directly on the floor without a plinth. As in Carl Plackman’s arrangement of canes or Cornelia Parker’s clock-like configuration of lead pieces, they have a vestigial quality. They look as if they have been left over from a performance or – that other buzz word of the time – transformed by an ‘alchemical’ experiment.
Among the best examples are Bill Woodrow’s conjuring of a panther from the metal body of a car- door or Jean-Luc Vilmouth’s arrangement of household objects into a totemic upright figure. Vilmouth is typical of the artists in the show in that he retains the original character of the objects and arranges them contiguously rather than disguising them or physically joining them together. For this reason, as in Bill Woodrow’s panther or Tony Cragg’s ‘George and the Dragon’, the viewer reads the image and the materials simultaneously. Hence one both recognises and suppresses the artist’s intervention like an audience watching a magician replace a rabbit in a hat.
Another of Tony Cragg’s pieces is a wall-based work, which comprises a Union Jack made out of the fragments of discarded plastic objects. Cragg was one of several artists to use the Union flag at a time when many felt out of step with the divided, post-industrial world of eighties Britain. Among them were Martin Parr, who used the flag to symbolise the decay of class identity, or Paul Graham and Jock McFadyen who borrowed it to make references to Northern Ireland and the Falklands. In this exhibition, however, Cragg’s piece invites comparison with other wall-based works by the Boyle Family and Kate Blacker. The former is a fibreglass cast of a section of pavement, which the artists: would typically have selected at random through firing an air-rifle or throwing a dart at a map. Like several of their contemporaries, ‘the Boyle Family’ comprised a duo of artists that chose to work collaboratively in a way that underlined the mechanical nature of their process. In a similarly self-effacing fashion, Kate Blacker used part of a tree to prop up a triangular piece of corrugated iron in an image that is instantly recognizable as a homage to Cézanne’s beloved Mont Sainte Victoire. The apparent clumsiness of the work, the allusion to an earlier artist and the bringing together of natural, found and painted forms is typical of a decade that was already beginning to over-dose on the ironies of post-modernism.
When I saw it in Yorkshire Kate Blacker’s precarious construction was placed opposite Julian Opie’s cartoon-like assemblage of jokey nails and hammers. It reminded me of how ‘bricollage’ was very much in fashion. The term meaning ‘make-do-and mend’ refers to the kind of botched job that French DIY men or ‘bricolleurs’ were alleged to inflict on unsuspecting home-buyers. The same miscegenation reappears in Richard Wentworth’s twinning of an open sardine can with a galvanised bucket or in Edward Allington’s juxtaposition of a gold painted cornucopia with a set of shop-bought plastic creepy-crawlies. The latter’s use of a rococo reference and populist imagery was typical of the kind of self-conscious artistic slumming that was characteristic of the period. Phyllida Barlow’s exhibit was also of a shell, which she had created by winding endless layers of transparent sellotape around a central core. Like Allington, she had thus created a tension between the beauty of the image and the non-fine art materials from which it has been produced. The same ambiguity is apparent in Richard Deacon’s work in which the artist had sewn a pair of old trouser legs together or in Alison Wilding’s creation of a jewel-like sculpture through bronze-casting two anonymous paper bags. Like many artists in the show, all four evoke the poetic strategies of the Italian arte povera movement. Yet in Phyllida Barlow’s case, her obsessive manufacture of the work lends it an icy beauty that is curiously disquieting in ways that look forward to the vanitas shells of Damien Hirst’s vitrines.
Perhaps, it is wrong, however, to focus too much on the content of the work. For it is all too easy to read ideas such as ‘national identity’, ‘the environment’, ‘post-industrialisation’ or ‘consumerism’ into an exhibition that, as the title implies, is most memorable for its inclusion of beautifully made and cleverly invented things. More than a quarter of a century on, what is striking is not so much the prescience of the sculptors’ ideas as the gulf that divides them from the more glamorous generation of artists that succeeded them. And that’s one rabbit, of course, that doesn’t look as if it’s going back into the hat.
‘Making It’ closed at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park on the 21 June and is now touring to the Warwick Arts Centre from 8 October–5 December and the City Art Centre, Edinburgh, from 7 May–3 June 2016.
Gerald Deslandes. OCA Tutor and Assessor
Featured Cornelia Parker, Fleeting Monument, 1985
Tony Cragg, Postcard Union Jack, 1981
Richard Deacon, The Eye Has It, 1984