Art reviews: The Sculpture Show | Jock McFadyen: Fragments of Scotland

The definition of sculpture has blurred significantly in the past century, and the SNGMA captures the main shift very well, with some striking pieces – but there is a gap where many Scottish artists are not done justice



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WHAT is sculpture? There was once an easy answer: art in three dimensions, usually made of stone or bronze. It was so distinct from painting that art schools were organised around the difference. No longer. Artists still make sculpture and painters paint pictures, but there is no dividing line any more. The breakdown of the old distinctions reflects another profound shift, too. One of the defining characteristics of sculpture was durability, but most contemporary art is ephemeral. The model of durability in art was the Antique and that always meant sculpture. The art of the Renaissance was shaped by the sculpture of the Greeks and Romans. Painting was measured against its sculptural norms. For centuries afterwards, copying sculpture was the first lesson in art teaching, but correspondingly, from the Dutch painters to Turner and the Impressionists, you could measure the evolution of modern art by the degree to which painting progressively distanced itself from this sculptural burden.

Now sculpture itself has joined painting, moving away from the solid and durable to morph into film, performance and all sorts of other manifestations, and for many contemporary artists to try to make a distinction between the two art forms would be meaningless. That being so, as it proposes to bring the story of sculpture up to date, The Sculpture Show at the SNGMA should answer my opening question, but that is something it does not really do, or perhaps it simply cannot.

First of all, however, it showcases the SNGMA’s own rich collection of sculpture, much of which has not been seen for a long time. That core has also been enhanced by extensive loans to present the narrative of sculpture since 1900, or at least that is how it sets out, beginning boldly with spectacular bronzes by Rodin and Degas. Called here Impressionist Sculpture, they represent the moment when, having had the upper hand for so long, sculpture began to follow painting. Nevertheless, Rodin’s Flying Figure is still just a fragment of the Antique. Moving on to post-Cubist sculpture, too, even a radically deconstructed head by Otto Gutfreund is recognisably still a classical bust. But then, not content with taking the lead, painting began to move on to sculpture’s patch.

This happened initially with collage. Pioneered by the Cubists as Picasso’s Head of 1913 bears witness, collage not only moved painting into three dimensions, it also brought actual things into the image. Thus a painting, no longer simply a representation, could become a transformed object just as sculpture had always been.

As the show demonstrates, a lot of wonderful work developed from that point as the traditional demarcations dissolved. Ben Nicholson’s exquisite low reliefs are both painting and sculpture. Nicholson himself may appear in Barbara Hepworth’s Dyad, a beautiful abstract figure of carved and polished wood with faces that may be the artist and her then husband, Nicholson. Clearly painting and sculpture were merging. The distinctions were breaking down and looking at her work now, Hepworth’s characteristic use of holes, of spaces within her sculpture, does seem surprisingly pictorial.

Sculpture did not simply abandon its once dominant assertion of the solid and durable, however. Sir Jacob Epstein turned to hieratic, non-classical sculptural traditions to reassert the monumental in three dimensions. His Consummatum Est – “It is finished”, Christ’s last words from the cross – is a massive reclining figure carved in alabaster and is inspired by such diverse traditions as the Romanesque and Assyrian relief sculpture.

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It was the example of Eric Gill that inspired Epstein to turn to stone carving. Gill is here too, though only in a carved inscription and a small crucifixion. In Germany between the wars Kathe Kollwitz turned to the example of Gothic sculpture to create images that reflect the tensions of her times with dramatic expressive power.

Initially the exhibition alternates between British and Continental artists. Eduardo Paolozzi and William Turnbull are grouped with other British sculptors of the 1950s under the heading The Geometry of Fear. The title is a quote from Herbert Read, writing in the catalogue of an exhibition of British sculpture at the Venice Biennale in 1952. His words aptly capture the dark and pessimistic mood of post-war Britain. Collage is the chosen vehicle for these artists, and although it originated with painting it has now become a powerful form of unambiguously sculptural expression. Turnbull’s Standing Figure acknowledges prehistoric archetypes, but is cast in bronze from a collage of clay and corrugated paper. Three of Paolozzi’s early pieces cast and assembled in the same way stand nearby. They look magnificent.

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But then, abruptly, you move on to Ron Mueck’s A Girl, a gigantic, lifelike model of a newborn child, which occupies the big central room. It is impressive, even if it achieves its effect simply by being disturbingly graphic on a very large scale.

In the next gallery, Duane Hanson’s familiar American tourists, John de Andrea’s Model in Repose and a group of masked and suited men by John Davies continue the theme of startling hyperrealism. The final room on the ground floor is devoted to the Surrealists and their influence. Henry Moore appears here. Paolozzi was a much greater Surrealist than Moore, but the pieces from the 1950s are the only works by him here.

At this point the exhibition seems to lose its way and abandons the narrative with which it sets out. Upstairs there are several significant pieces of sculpture. Sol LeWitt’s Five Modular Structures, Donald Judd’s Progression and Ulrich Rükriem’s Two Sandstone Rocks represent the dramatic restatement of the essence of sculptural form by the Minimalists in the 70s. But Karla Black and David Shrigley alongside cannot match them and, anyway, if the focus is to shift to Scottish artists, by what logic do we get to them, or indeed to Simon Starling and Martin Boyce nearby without considering the generation in between?

Ian Hamilton Finlay is represented by a series of photographs. Bruce McLean’s performances get a room to themselves, but if performance recorded in film is sculpture, then the end of George Wyllie’s Straw Locomotive – burnt on a pyre in the obsequies of Scotland’s industry eviscerated by the Thatcher government – was as grand a manifestation of that as any. Like so many of his contemporaries, however, both sculptors and painters, Wyllie is not here, nor is he represented in our national collection. Too many to list here, they are a missing generation.

As the show does become so random, you can take time to enjoy a film by Peter Fischli and David Weiss, an extraordinary variation on falling dominoes. A chain of consequences that continues for a full half hour using fire, water, gravity, and every sort of mechanical action and reaction to trigger each subsequent event. It’s more circus than sculpture, however. I certainly don’t think we need to reflect very deeply on it or consider, as the label proposes, how it gives commonplace objects new reference points. It doesn’t.

Jock McFadyen is one of that missing generation. He is not in the national collection, but he has done some very distinguished painting which, although he is based in London, has a strongly Scottish frame of reference. His recent work showing at Bourne Fine Art contains some very good examples, including some economically evocative paintings of Jura and the Hebrides. An abandoned bus beneath a glowing sunset sky is a memorable and eloquent image of the Western Isles, beautiful, but also very far from being sentimental.

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• The Sculpture Show runsuntil 24 June; Jock McFadyen until 14 January.