Tuesday, 22 April 2008



The sculptor’s recent show, Firmament, featured a massive reclining figure constructed from a lattice of welded steel rods and balls of various short lengths and angles, scarcely accommodated or wholly perceived within the White Cube ground floor gallery at Mason’s Yard, London. The attention to scale, containment and the measurement of site against the figure or human presence, are central to the artist’s work. The outlines to the figure suggest computer modelling or a CAD sensibility and quite apart from scale and materials, give the figure a familiar distance, typically suggest a stereotype or indifferent token, for which Gormley is sometimes criticised.

Gormley’s use of the figure is peculiar, even in a time of studied fabrication and commercial standards (see also Post 20). His figures carry a special remoteness or anonymity that is in large part the heritage of an interest in Conceptual Art and site-specific approaches in the 70s. His early work includes the figure amongst a range of castings, essentially concerned with removing or deriving samples from a site or event, in this respect recalls the work of Richard Long and Hamish Fulton, for example. Materials vary from the architectural to implements, or artefacts, to wood and stone. They are presented in distinctive formats in order to signal source and quality (see also Posts 48 and 58) are simultaneously transformed and transported. The distinctive seams to casts stress their function as containers, as broad records of volume, significantly, the internal details of which remain concealed, a little like the work of George Segal.

But here the figure or person is treated no differently from a boulder, provides only a more elaborate specimen. Conversely, related implements and materials may be presented as extensions to the figure – point to site or event as the scope of a figure’s influence. Other works from this time simply trace a figure or parts to materials, confirming the figure as an imprint upon site, material as measure of figure.

So, initially the figure is part of a wider array of subjects for the artist and the castings or perfunctory modellings establish a certain distance or restraint for both artist and figure. The figure is defined merely by the impact upon setting, as muted or inscrutable beyond that. Following works give greater attention to pose, but stress only the figure’s compression or reach, the gesture often to be set against the gallery architecture as measure of scale, substance and context. In all, the figures become essentially a register of psychological distance or literal displacement. Such figures are also deployed in exteriors and there signal similar differences in custom, time of day or season. The figures are now inserted into sites or situations rather than extracted from them.

As they become the focus of Gormley’s work, the principal specimen of a site (or vice versa) their cool generic quality and disconnected or self-contained poses become more prominent and troubling. In the monumental Angel of The North (1995) the substitution of aircraft wings for arms crucially reinforces the mechanical, robotic aspect, undercutting the traditional iconography of angels, giving the imposing figure an ominous, industrial undertone. The north would seem less than human or humane by this, an angel only the exploitation of manufacture. Even as symbols or personifications, Gormley’s approach encounters problems, as public reaction attests. Another criticism points to the curious bias toward men amongst his figures.

In later work he turns from rugged casting and encasing to more detailed modelling or assembly from a range of standard industrial components. This too only underlines the robotic nature of the figures and the artist’s deliberate detachment. Proportion and anatomy often remain standard, even academic, occasionally are reduced to no more then stick figures, while poses resemble fitness exercises or drills, their value, like their materials, in how much and long they displace space and place by. Any personality is again conspicuously ignored. Gormley’s use of crowds of figures is also telling in this regard. The small, simple clay figurines are collected from volunteers among school children and the general public then cast and marshalled in impressive numbers according to specific exhibition opportunities. Again character and engagement are distanced, the figures mere instruments in some larger design. Whether these are faults to the works, or works about such faults, is moot.

In Firmament, all three aspects to the artist’s work achieve new and vivid demonstration, mechanical assembly, confinement within architecture or occupation of place and the essentially hollow gesture or pose, the figure with person removed.

The artist’s own website has been especially helpful in researching this post.


Anonymous said...

Your posts are so damned detailed and your thoughts so well formulated- it's like a lesson in art history. Love it!

CAP said...

Thanks BPD, glad you ejoyed.