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Become an Object

After millennia of development, what is the purpose of sculpture today? Four artists explore materiality and unexpected outcomes to confirm the artform’s enduring vibrancy. Words by Martin Holman.

What is the role of sculpture today? The world has never been more crowded – with people, things and places, but also ways to make, look, document, communicate. The ancient functions of sculpture in religion, commemoration, representation (of people, animals) and decoration now seem redundant. So what place does this artform occupy now? Indeed, does “sculpture” exist as a specific branch of the visual arts? In contemporary practice, the lack of a clear purpose is both the idiom’s difficulty and strength. Artists have been rethinking its value for decades – one sign alone of sculpture’s validity. They view its usefulness in society or the wilder culture, benefiting from its emancipation from expectations. Sculpture shifts shape, busts categories, spans substance and absence, tangibility and nothingness, form and shapelessness. Above all, it is the site of constant research and experiment.

As artists commit to making, the outcomes often surprise them. This exhibition at the gallery in Tremenheere Sculpture Gardens explores the diversity of routes available to maker and viewer alike through the radically different practices and interests of four artists. Will Cruickshank is based in Devon, Jemma Egan in London, Jesse Pollock in Kent and Jonathan Michael Ray in Cornwall.

For Will Cruickshank, the dynamics of production are fundamental to his work. They determine form, scale and even potential meanings. Within the broad sculptural parameters that he sets himself, the shape of an object is unknown at the outset. It assumes form and surface as the artist follows his materials, battling with their characteristics and being surprised. His primary material is spun yarn. Its durability, tenacity, flexibility, softness, resilience and colour-bearing appeal to him technically, because it can be manipulated by makeshift technology. No rational system governs the chromatic outcome of his Spliced Spindles (2019). He chooses from random overstocks of thread from a local factory and cannot predict the colours or textures he will receive. Some basic selection occurs but he often loses track of which threads he has fed into the spinning.

So he anticipates with excitement the “butterfly moment” when the thread is cut open with a steel knife to reveal an interior pattern, arrived at by chance. The full array of internal patterns appears from the chrysalis of the wound object. At first, however, the outcome was momentary: the threads quickly fell away to nothing. He then improvised a method of stitching the thread in place so that the interwoven colours remained in place.

He did not fall into using textiles by design; he began by carving wood. Out of curiosity he wrapped geometrically-shaped carvings with yarn. He had liked the quilted pattern on spool cones and that was his starting point. Initially, winding was manual and arduous. The process quickly moved on to machinery he constructs himself. His first lathe for turning wood spindles and related objects utilised a cement mixer’s motor. His studio now houses numerous self-made devices with varying capacities, speeds and uses – for winding, carving, cutting. To complete Wound Frame No. 4 (2022), the diameter was partly determined by the limits up to which his machines can still wind and turn. Studio space and technical ingenuity lie at the heart of subsequent developments.

For him, yarn is principally one more art material. Comprising parallel chromatic bands, symmetrical arrangements such as Inside Out (2023) highlight flatness, line and physical shape, like a modernist abstract canvas. Spooled by machine and carefully removed, the threads are nailed flat to horizontal wooden rods and mounted on the wall. That manoeuvre gives taut, even pictorial form to the shapeless loop, the sculptural element. If unfastened, the parts would return to loose skeins. Improvisation also guides him through types of making: “When I reach a point where the work is getting predictable, I see where to go next. There is a risk in over-refining things: you can get too skilful. That’s when the work can get a bit flat.” So he’ll find a way out of that position, or it arrives by chance.

The spiky-sided Large Flask and Husk (both 2018) materialised from an experiment that went wrong. Washing blocks intended as plinths to display other works, the pressure hose loosened the structure of plaster and sawdust, eroding the form to expose random coloured threads imbedded in the plaster. A new sculptural process was the result and strengthened. “The bolder and more aggressive you can be,” Cruikshank reflects, “the better the results.” Physical energy is an important factor, too, for Jesse Pollock and the shapes his sculpture assumes. Heat and fire are involved in melting the aluminium he uses, which he likens to working with magma, the molten natural material at the planet’s core. “Heat is doing the work, warping, melting, pooling metal into chewing-gum puddles,” he says. “But I’m the decider, I force things into place. If it doesn’t fit, I’ll hit it or cut it.”

To retain a sense of their fluid origins, Pollock casts objects in sand moulds. Like Cruickshank, he is wary of a precise finish because the world is not neatly edged but volatile and chaotic. He creates within that realisation. His skulls like EMBRACE or SILENCE (both 2023) emerge from blocks of aluminium modelled by plasma cutting with superheated, electrically ionised gas. As well as making the process of production evident, Pollock stresses the repetitive nature of making, such as hammering to achieve the abraded, shaken up and much-handled surfaces he seeks.

Prior to casting aluminium in 2022, he cut shapes from sheets of the material. In Sheer Teeth (2024), made especially for this show, he revisits the laborious technique of nibbling strips with a tool before applying long welds to fix them together. Many then resembled domestic objects out of kilter with reality. Flagons, stiles, steps and a granary on staddle stones (a public sculpture still on view in the City of London) were derived from the rural periphery to his childhood surroundings in Kent’s Medway towns.

He says that borrowing shapes from familiar, functional objects “connects with people who have not thought about sculpture before.” Planning his objects in his studio, their shapes loomed larger in his imagination, prompting their unnatural scale and heightened colour. As he says, they were “hyped up, futuristically.” Using powder-coated coloured metal, especially the virulent “candy orange” that sheets are supplied in, also exaggerated the original idea.

Contemplation defines an artist’s studio existence. To dwell productively on possibilities, Pollock contends, it is best to sit down, figure out the next step and act ingeniously rather than re-tread well-worn, “cheap” and reassuring tactics. His opinion applies equally to art and society. For him, the two are interconnected. “I intend my work to exist in the now,” he said in a recent interview, “speaking to current events in society and to political conditions.” He admits to unease with certain nostalgic traits that colour our perceptions of the past at the national level, defy historical fact yet influence decisions taken collectively about a community’s future.

Contained in Pollock’s work is a metaphor for human existence and the world we live in. While it is not the full story, life’s contradictions and prejudices, its humour and inventiveness concern him deeply. The skeleton encapsulates that array, being “deadly serious”, grotesque and jokey. The largest, called BLISS (2023), is seated, at rest and maybe thinking; it has a weird grin. Are we sleep-walking towards a rude awakening?

He first adopted the skull as a way of bringing the figure into his imagery. Britain was emerging hesitantly from the pandemic, a frightening period when nations moved fast to find a cure and, thus, survive. Pollock wants his skeletons to appear alive. But what does “bliss” suggest? A state of happiness? Or ignorance? The composition is certainly provocative, offering no clear answer but settled in its uncertainty, a state of being many are reluctant to accept.

Jemma Egan’s three Imposters (2021) are also, indirectly, products of the pandemic. During lockdowns, limited access to exercise outside her upstairs flat took her past houses where, despite open space being a rare asset in the city, she was surprised that garden furniture and pizza ovens remained covered and unused. An amalgam of those sightings led to these ungainly and endearing figures. They inevitably recall domestic environments where attachments are made (literally and emotionally) to inanimate objects. Like the face humanising a Henry vacuum cleaner, these bizarre surrogates are admitted to our homes – we might even mourn their passing like a friend’s.

A sense of the ridiculous is embedded in all Egan’s work: viewers identify with it and may feel relieved that art’s presumed seriousness has slipped. The Imposters refer to public sculpture, the bronze statuary on plinths (many forgotten) that take up space in towns across the country. Egan’s response is distinctively tongue-in-cheek: flimsy modern sculptures with anthropomorphic undertones masquerading as something robust and permanent. They resemble solid forms but are loose synthetic canvas covers over wood armatures hidden from sight.  And, with all that, the art remains, vividly leavened by the push-and-pull between unattainable culture and real life. All the artists in this show question the forms art can take. Theirs is not a search for “newness” but earnest recognition that the materials and techniques available to earlier generations are either superseded today by modern technologies or out of the price range of contemporary practitioners.

That reality partly accounts for Egan’s choices. She does not set out to make funny sculpture: “I am interested in everyday, somewhat mundane things, perhaps seen in a garden or the street. I find them spectacular in some way: I walk past them and keep coming back for another look.” She then positions them in the art realm where they gently poke at tradition while refocussing the parameters of art’s subject matter on the exceptional in the everyday. “All my work refers to me and my background,” she says, referring to growing up in working-class Liverpool. Art was not part of her family upbringing although at school ‘copying’ was her favourite activity in art class. She recalls copying Picasso’s Weeping Woman (1937) from a reproduction, then discovering the original in the Tate was much smaller than she had imagined it.

The contrast between real and “fake” still interests her. The log-like shape titled Lum ber (2023) is not tree-hard but soft like the bag it resembles. Indeed, handles mean its weight can be shared between carriers. Not only are physical expectations played with, wordplay occurs too. Baggage implies contents; people are said to be lumbered with emotional baggage. Shredded bureaucratic documents pad the sculpture relating to tedious immigration wrangles. But her audience can neither see them nor know their content: concealment is part of the ongoing masquerade with the outside world that these objects perform and highlight.

“I’ve always moved around a lot. So I often use materials around me and which I don’t need to buy.” She learns techniques as she works with a broad range of media. After Lum ber, for example, she took a garment-making course. While living in Toronto she did not have a studio so making art videos with her computer was a practical solution. At London’s Royal College of Art, she relished time in the foundry. The small disarming object Stella (2015) is cast in hard bronze, a material associated with grand sculptural statements.

Why Stella? The title refers to Stella Liebeck, a 79-year-old woman in the US who successfully sued McDonalds in a celebrated lawsuit in 1994. She had suffered third-degree burns when hot coffee spilled over her lap when she removed the cup lid.

The work replicates a plastic lid that Egan found by chance in Canada (hence the French script). Crushed and discarded, it looked like a face. The form spoke volumes to her. She photographed the lid where it lay and then went back later to retrieve the actual object. That photograph became the basis of a three-dimensional scan that, once printed, formed the mould for casting with the lost-wax method that dates back several millennia. Pewter is a soft metal with a shiny finish; poured into moulds it is shaped easily by hand tools. That process produced the numerous miniature dogs that comprise I had a little play with him today and absolutely fell in love all over again (2019). Its origin also lies in Egan’s attraction to offbeat consequences of human behaviour – here, the 1990s craze for Sony AIBO robotic dogs, expensive metal devices adopted as substitute animal companions by their owners.

There are often many layers in Jonathan Michael Ray’s work; “it looks deeper into the material than just the polished surface,” he says. Materials have always been his starting point. House bricks, several types of slate and granite, serpentine stone, glass and lead, chalk, limestone, windfall oak, wax, seashells and discarded objects found on the Thames foreshore have featured in recent years. Ray also employs photography, film, engraving, drawing, cutting, grinding, polishing, sanding and incising. His career provides a definition of the term “multidisciplinary”. “There are often many layers of reference in my work,” he says. Within the dense, tactile solidity of stone, Ray perceives a multitude of stories. In colour, texture, weight and shape, he draws out signs of the passage of time and the natural forces that have modelled the physical properties of these substances.

The form might outwardly be simple, like the orb in Fántasma (2024). Its surface is traversed by etched lines drawn out by ivory enamel. Their significance at first seems impenetrable. Careful looking reveals that they pick out the stone’s composition in colour and fossils, as if registering the exploratory trajectory of the eye or hand in graphic form. The title comes from the Greek word for “apparition”: “The markings appeared to me to make the orb look gaseous or cloud-like in contrast to its solid and heavy form,” Ray points out. “Some stones tell you what they want and with others you can put something on it.”

He imports the inspiration he feels from another spherical artwork, the so-called Magic Sphere of Helios, the sun god, seen in Athens’s Acropolis museum. Constructed in the 6th century BC, it may have been an ancient spirit house, a type of stone or jewel that could hold a spirit. Ray explores that mystery in his own work, separating it from the everyday present.

“There is something futuristic about the very ancient,” he says, a view encapsulated in Portal (2024), created specifically for this show. Slate blocks, piled in a column, imply various typologies:  a standing stone survival from earlier times such as populate parts of Cornwall or a modern energy generator. As with those possibilities, its purpose is lost in translation to the gallery.

Each block is inscribed and the patterns possibly connect, but what do they mean? In fact, Ray has borrowed a recent language that is now largely defunct, the schematics from 1969 of the Intel 4004, the first commercially produced microprocessor. Supplanted by multiple generations of more powerful successors and discontinued before Ray was born, what device will read its data now? Yet the language forms the basis of the microprocessor revolution powering the digital age.

Like many artists, literary science fiction influences his approach. He salvaged fragments of stained glass where the stories or commemorations the windows had once visualised have been blown asunder by dereliction and destruction. Pieced together in a random, abstract fashion, images like Golden Vortex (2023) now unwittingly project the very picture of disorder. New myths that arise from imagination and misapprehension, Ray implies, unleash new creativity. That conviction provides the cornerstone of every sculpture in this exhibition.

Become an Object continues at Tremenheere Gallery, Tremenheere Sculpture Gardens, near Gulval, Penzance, until 1 June 2024. The exhibition is supported by the Henry Moore Foundation.


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