United Enemies: The Problem of Sculpture in Britain in the 1960s and 1970s, Henry Moore Institute, Leeds

Text by Daniel Potts

United Enemies brings with it the spirit of Arte Inglese Oggi (English Art Today) – a 1976 British Council show in Milan featuring the work of many of the artists included – but concentrates on the complex nature of British sculpture in the 1960s and 1970s. Arte Inglese Oggi was organised into strict categories: Sculpture, Painting, Performance Art, Artist’s Film and Alternative Practices. United Enemies retrospectively allows us to carefully consider sculpture in relation to these other practices. The ambition is to impart how the concerns of sculpture at this time were relevant to contemporary artistic change and thinking, and thus formed the basis for the New British Sculpture of the 1980s, and what followed. This exhibition is divided into three sections – Manual Thinking, Standing and Groundwork.

Manual Thinking is the first section encountered by the visitor. Here we are encouraged to appreciate how the hand preoccupies the pieces and the methods of production. The work nearest to the entrance of the gallery certainly engages the viewer in this way. It is Roelof Louw’s (b.1936) Soul City (Pyramid of Oranges), (1967). We are invited to take and consume one of the oranges from the pyramid. Doing so begs the question: what is the nature of this work? Does the placing of the oranges in a pyramid by the artist constitute the work? Or does the work consist in the taking of an individual orange by the viewer? And so, does an exhibit need to be physically made to constitute a work? These questions alter the parameters of aesthetic perception, thus the work is a successful example of how the concerns of sculpture, at the time of its production, were relevant to artistic change and thinking. However, it is also a most striking work for the brightness of the constitutive parts taken together, and for the regularity of the large-scale geometry. The pungent citric aroma, redolent of the childhood stocking-filler associated with this time of year might prove a welcome waft of nostalgia for many visitors.

In the same section we find the exhibit Untitled (1961-62), by Stuart Brisley (b. 1933). This wall-mounted work consists of pieces of dark wood, many of them curved and set in one direction with the effect of a sense of sweeping movement in that direction, mounted on a wooden frame. The sweeping effect is occasionally balanced by other sections of the dark wood, contiguous with the relatively square direction conveyed of the frame. The piece is striking because of the contrast between, on the one hand, the different natures of the apparent direction of movement conveyed by the mounted pieces of wood, and, on the other, the homogeneity of the material used. It is possible that the work will strike the viewer in an irksome, unsettling way because of this contrast, and because the dark wood used is somewhat reminiscent of that used in the construction of furniture.

The second section of the exhibition is Standing. Here, spatial tensions are used to unsettle and challenge the viewer. Two works seemed most remarkable for the unsettling sense of synaesthesia they conveyed, subsisting between the title of the works and the physical manifestation. One was Sir Anthony Caro’s (b. 1924) Whispering (1969). Made from (what seemed to be) some sort of heavy metal and painted red, the piece was somewhat reminiscent of a very long thin anchor, precariously leaning against the wall, with the addition, again consistently homogeneous in the use of material, of a sort of long extended spiral of the shape of those used in the distillation of alcoholic spirits. This addition, with the regular undulations of the thin strip when viewed from most angles, seemed to convey the bubbling, breathy scratchiness of the phenomenon implied by the title. And taken together with the general precariousness of the work, this seemed to impart and evoke the annoyance often felt when one hears the sound of whispering without perceiving the detail.

The other work was Maid of Honour (1965) by Garth Evans (b. 1934). Consisting of what seemed to be, two long, thin pyramids arranged vertically, the uppermost point of one meeting and enveloping the other which pointed to the floor, their coupling requiring that both uppermost points were not visible, the work was taller than the average person. Blocks and lines of colour adorned this tall piece. The sense of synaesthesia between the title and the work seems to come from the severity of the sharp lines of what seemed to suggest a formal dress and that of the old-fashioned word ‘maid’. The sense of severity also comes from the anonymity – there is certainly no discernible physical, human identity. Perhaps the general sense of severity conveyed is unsettling because it suggests emotional damage and severity of character. The nuptial association compounds this sense.

The third section of United Enemies is Groundwork. This focuses on the ground as a sculptural subject. Bruce McLean’s photograph, titled Floataway Piece, Beverley Brook Barnes 1967 (1967) is a depiction of wooden sticks floating in a brook. Monochrome allowed for a starker contrast between the light coloured sticks and the dark waters, which they seem to frame as corpuscles of the natural world, taken collectively as the aggregration of things framed and interrupted.

United Enemies does not claim to be a comprehensive survey of British sculpture in the 1960s and 1970s. However, it does convey an illuminating sense of the way things were moving during this period, and acts as an explanation of the convergence of different and varied practices that come under the term sculpture, with which we have contemporary acquaintance.

United Enemies: The Problem of Sculpture in Britain in the 1960s and 1970s, 01/12/2011 – 11/03/2012, Henry Moore Institute, The Headrow, Leeds. www.henry-moore.org

United Enemies Events:
Gallery Discussion – 18 January 2012 2-4pm
Film Screening 1: Manual Thinking – 1 February 2012
Film Screening 2: Standing – 8 February 2012
Film Screening 3: Groundwork – 15 February 2012

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Roelof Louw
Soul City (Pyramid of Oranges) (1967)
6,000 large oranges, timber framework, plastic ground sheet
© Leeds Museums and Galleries (Art Gallery) and the artist