I have no Art training- I have just done a lot of looking- so visiting an exhibition called A Lesson in Sculpture about John Latham, an artist who I had never heard of was a bit of a challenge. I always think of the Henry Moore Institute as quite hardcore whatever it is showing. It’s a serious place, quite forbidding behind its sleek, grey, modern facade- a fortress of Art which seems to be built for people who are in the know. There is nothing necessarily wrong with that of course, but it can be quite daunting. You don’t go in there to parade your ignorance.
My first reaction was to rush over to the two Cornelia Parker pieces, My Soul Aflame (1997) and Just When I Need Him Most (2005) and greet them like old friends. I know and love her work and I had seen them before in her exhibition at the Baltic in Gateshead. Two charred hymnbooks, rescued from a church that was struck by lightning in Lyrtle,Texas, open at the pages showing the hymns which give them their titles. When I told a committed Christian about them after first seeing them he looked at me wide eyed and said, “I wonder why God did that?” An atheist would enjoy the wit and irony. I stood in front of them thinking about how fragile life is, how objects can change and resonate through time, and how we can never really know.
It took a while, and an interesting conversation with one of the people guarding the fortress, before a return visit was able to help me start to see what was going on in John Latham’s work. Like Cornelia Parker he was also interested in time and transformation and changing objects quite violently. Often this involved books. Destroying books is an action with a lot of forceful associations, most of them unpleasant. Latham was removed from his teaching post at St Martin’s College for “distilling the essence” of a library book- a fine euphemism after seeing what he has done to some other books. It was a book of critical essays about Art by Martin Greenberg and his action seems to me to be both appalling and admirable- a nice example of Art triumphing forcibly over one of its hangers on. The books in this exhibition which Latham has destroyed to make his work don’t seem to me to be forlorn, maligned objects. You may not be able to read them any more but they are still there, surviving trauma, and the knowledge that they have already passed on cannot be so easily wiped out. There is real power in them as they skewer each other, lie there half hidden amongst the wreckage, or remain frozen in time, stopped in motion as they collide with each other. It’s all quite macho, cold and scientific, very male, especially the room which celebrates all the anonymous work done in the coal industry where piles of red shale and coal waste have been designated as sculpture with a soundtrack of shovelling.
I like the beauty, wit and thoughtfulness of Cornelia Parker’s work so much better but I think I was beginning to see where John Latham was coming from. Who knows?
I wasn’t expecting to like this exhibition very much, but I found plenty to enjoy. The information leaflet told me that it “explores how objects resist and are coerced into becoming sculptures and are accorded historical value.” This is a much simpler and more playful idea than it sounds. Things can become what we say they are, whether it is by accident- thanks to a misattribution or misunderstanding- or by the will of an artist. Objects from the past may gain or lose resonance with the passage of time and simple mass produced objects may be given a new status by being singled out in a gallery. It’s an exhibition about perception and assumptions which can be shifted and challenged and it allows you to look at things with a fresh eye.
You can see the fine delicacy of newly germinated grass in a new way via Hans Haacke’s grass cube (1967) and wonder at the irony of Robert Smithson’s Asphalt Lump (1969) given value because he has conferred a new status on it, set beside some chipped flint eoliths which once had a status as supposedly ancient man made objects but are now known to be naturally occurring. A piece of a newly discovered mineral sits waiting to be named- as it will be before the exhibition closes so that it can be classified for the first time. What difference will that make? We are invited to wonder.
I liked Felix Gonzalez-Torres “Untitled” (Placebo) 1991. Why wouldn’t you? This is sculpture that you have permission to eat, a spread out glittering mass of silver wrapped sweets on the floor. A playful way of allowing you to snatch back part of a sculpture and reclaim it for its original use. So what exactly is it as it disintegrates in your mouth? Are you eating a sweet? Of course you are………. but what was it before you picked it up?
The star of the exhibition, for me at least, was Andy Warhol’s Silver Clouds (1966). A gallery space uses a corner fan to move the air just enough to float silver Mylar balloons around the air space. They drift gently around at a constant steady pace, high and low, with no sudden movements. If you stand still eventually one will float right across your eye line at close range or nudge you in the back. It is a delightful experience to be in the room with them, dreamlike and reassuring. They come to seem like gentle, inquisitive living beings. That may sound fanciful, but it really is what I felt. If I’d stayed there long enough I would have wanted to feed them. I disliked the fact that there were two other exhibits in the room with them. They needed the space to themselves.
“It doesn’t matter if we hate what we are looking at so long as we can really see it. Nobody ever said you have to like art- certainly not all of it- that would be insane. But you do have to see it- not talk about it or watch it on TV. Nothing replaces the act of seeing”
I had only recently read the above quote in the catalogue to Tracey Emin’s exhibition She Lay Down Deep Below The Sea while visiting the Turner Contemporary gallery in Margate, so when one of the first things that I was confronted with in Sarah Lucas’ exhibition at the Henry Moore Institute in Leeds was an art work, a famous one, containing a stained old mattress not unlike the one which Emin uses in her sculpture The Disappearing Lake, it came straight back to haunt me. That’s because Sarah Lucas is an artist who I really don’t see. Visiting this exhibition was my first serious attempt to have a good look and I still didn’t see. Much of what I was looking at seemed to me to be ugly, vulgar and one dimensional. I’m not saying it is that way, only pointing out that I couldn’t see it. I wasn’t offended and I am certainly not accusing it of being bad art, that is not my job as a simple gallery punter, I just had no idea what was going on. Yes I could see sexual imagery. I can see that melons can be breasts and cucumbers can be penises, and the writhing stuffed tights could be parts of bodies but it all seemed just a bit empty, no life, no soul, no subtlety. There was a very large pale pink block in the shape of a tin of spam, with the obvious title next to it on the wall, and I stood there looking at it wondering why. It’s a distinctive shape, yes……. but why? Art doesn’t have to be beautiful, although it’s nice when it is, but it does have to be interesting. This seemed to me to be neither.
I did try, and I did get my reward. There is a really great piece, a triumphant pair of platform boots on a plinth, which as a former seventies teenager I liked a lot. That seemed to say something to me about the power of being a woman, the glory of dressing up, and the fun of the past. They have life and movement as though the legs of the wearer are still in them. I could have done with a few more pieces like that. I’d have chosen it for the poster too.
I’m sorry Sarah, not that you will be worried. I did try.
I walked into Michael Dean’s installation Government at the Henry Moore Institute cold, without reading any of the quite detailed leaflet material. I did that quite deliberately. I wanted to see what it suggested to me without being told what to think. Too often what an artist says they are doing is given as much weight as the work which they put in front of you. Just for once, since I knew nothing at all about Michael Dean, I wanted to let his exhibition stand alone.
What I found was a very simple, peaceful and serene space. Two rooms, one with a single paned window letting in light, which had been freshly carpeted and painted in pale, soft neutral colours. They are completely empty except for the work, three flat sculptures, cast in concrete which lean against the walls and two spheres sitting, perfectly placed on the carpet in the middle of the floor. There is also a book placed on the carpet in front of one of the sculptures, which you are invited to tear a page from, containing some of Michael Dean’s writing. A third room contains a plasma screen television showing light falling on a cabbage in the darkened space.
I sat down on the carpet, like the young staff in the room, and had a think. It was certainly an installation- a whole space which was saying something. Here was a perfcctly clean, controlled environment in which nothing could be moved or taken away without loss. The sculptures were minutely placed in relation to each other and the colour tones throughout the space were limited, tasteful and serene. Was it a picture of good government? The perfectly ordered and well organised world, country or private home which none of us ever quite manage to achieve reflected in a gallery space, set there to challenge the violence and chaos in the world around us? A safe space where nothing can harm us and nothing moves? What about the book? Is that simple act of violence to the perfectly ordered environment when a page is torn from the book a symbol of the fact that people bring their own kind of disruption wherever they go? Bear in mind that this disruption has been regulated and sanctioned. I had been given permission to tear out a single page, and that was all. Along with the fact that the three large pieces could not leave the space and remain whole, they had been cast on site, was this a hint that all was not as it seemed in this perfectly ordered world? Was I to keep my page and look at it as a memory of a time within a place where the world was kept at bay and gain strength from it? I didn’t know. I still don’t. All I do know is that I liked being in there, it consoled and pleased me to look around it, and tearing a second page from the book would have been unthinkable. Maybe that was the point.
And the cabbage? I really have no idea.
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Installation view of Shelagh Cluett: Drawing in Space Photo: Jerry Hardman-Jones
I had just wandered through the Henry Moore institute in Leeds looking at an exhibition of sculpture from the 1960’s and seventies “United Enemies” and found only a few things that I liked. Much of what was there seemed to me rather ugly, stiff and macho. I left wondering why the heart and joy had been left out. So much of what I was looking at seemed to me to be hard and grey and frankly dead. Then I found a tiny space with just a few notebooks, drawings and sculptures where heart and joy were very much present. This work was very much still alive and I was entranced. They were the work of a sculptor called Shelagh Cluett. Shelagh was not an obscure figure, she was one of the few female sculptors active in Britain in the 1970’s to be recognised and exhibited and she was also the first woman to hold the position of principal lecturer at Chelsea College of Art, but she and her work were absolutely new to me. I hope that this is due to my ignorance and not to the fact that her work is not as well remembered as it should be. Whatever the reason it was wonderful to find something new from the past which appealed to me so much completely by surprise.
Her work is very beautiful, light airy and full of movement. The exhibition verbiage describes the four pieces on show ( Shrive VI, Caesura II, Nullah I, and Taiga III ) as “delicate vertical structures using linear elements to mark out rhythms and currents in space” and this gets them exactly right. All four of them seem to leap up off the floor and dance in thin air, quite joyous, thin and sprightly, their shadows behind them on the white wall seeming like an echo from another world, describing the movement of the pieces and bringing an echo from another dimension. Two drawings, Aorist VII and Untitled 1980, share the same quality. They resist flatness and stillness and dance on the paper with great delicacy and speed of execution.
The workbooks and photographs were also interesting, if a little frustrating in that they showed me things that I would have loved to see for real. There is a beautiful photo in the cabinets containing them of a sculpture made from pleated cloth and thread at Hornsea College of Art between 1968 and 1971.
This little exhibition was a tiny hidden gem. I would love to see more of Shelagh Cluett’s work. I am a huge admirer of Barbara Hepworth’s work and there is another woman sculptor here who was also succeeding in the rather macho world of the time and producing work which is strong, feminine, joyful and stylish. She deserves to be better known in today’s world than she is.