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The Human Factor: The Figure in Contemporary Sculpture

by Ralph Rugoff, Editor
Hayward Publishing, London. UK, 2014
208 pp., illus. 137 col. Trade, £30.00
ISBN: 978-1-85332-322-5.

Reviewed by Rob Harle


The human figure as a primary feature of both sculpture and image making has been as much a part of human history as the evolution of language, the creation of myths and the development of culture — until the early 1960s! The three decades that followed saw the absolute relegation of figurative sculpture to the category of persona non grata. “Caro’s pioneering painted metal constructions were hailed for ‘liberating’ sculpture from its hidebound association with the figure, while forming a more abstract and medium-specific language” (p. 11). This book is like a lamp illuminating a Renaissance in which the figure once again regains its rightful place as one acceptable form of sculpture in society, perhaps further nailing the lid on the coffin of the fundamentalist-like, post-modern absurdity of what is or is not acceptable as art. To put the situation in perspective, it must be realised that as Herbert points out, “There was a period of perhaps 40 years when it was not particularly acceptable [figurative sculpture], and then only in the rarefied world of avant-garde art, to make such work” (p. 33).

The Human Factor –– published in conjunction with the exhibition of the same name at the Hayward Gallery, London — surveys the past 25 years of figurative sculpture — sculpture in which “the figure is the point of departure for engaging with a wide range of contemporary concerns.” Although I do not consider the book a definitive survey, and perhaps a little Eurocentric, the range of works presented is astonishing and broad enough to give the reader a good idea of where figurative sculpture “is at” in the first decade of the 21st century.

The book consists of a Foreword, then five interesting and informative essays as follows:
The Human Factor – Ralph Rugoff
Standing Sculpture at the Turn of the Century: Exchange Values and Metamorphoses – Penelope Curtis
Post-Abstract and Data-Mapped: The Conditions of Contemporary Figure Sculpture – Martin Herbert
After the Fall: The Re-Emergence of the Figure in Sculpture – James Lingwood
Bodies Politic - Lisa Lee

These chapters are followed by a black & white and colour plate section featuring examples of each of the 25 artists represented, together with text descriptions of the works shown. There are a number of insert sections with photographs of artists’ studios and works-in-progress by some of the sculptors.

As Curtis notes in her essay; “[The] haptic exchange between figure and ground, between body and material, unites an apparent eclectic range of artwork, and discourages us from making any simple conclusions about figurative sculpture in the early twenty-first century, other than to accept that it is being as abstract as it is figurative” (p. 24). This is a very different situation, and a healthy one I would suggest, than the previous decades that saw no interrogation and re-assessment of the figure at all. As a number of the essayists suggest, we can never go back, so to speak, to the way things were. This is indicated by the inclusion of both figurative and abstract elements, both in form and concept, in the sculptures featured in this book. It would be just as silly and futile for the neo-figurative artists to completely abandon abstraction as it was for abstractionists to abandon the figure — so carelessly and heartlessly.

Three characteristics of the neo-figurative sculpture that were not particularly significant in traditional figurative work are: (a) any materials are fair game (truth to the material is no longer a compelling issue); (b) the majority of works are deeply concerned with important social, political or cultural matters; (c) the sculptures, often multi-media constructions, require close and careful attention by the viewer to reveal the full intention of the artist.

There are far too many excellent works to describe here, but two that exemplify the neo-figurative underpinning are Katharina Fritsch’s Madonnenfigur (Madonna Figure). At first glance the Madonna stands in a public courtyard; however, the size is not the “normal” size of a Madonna, (smaller than life size), and it is bright yellow! What is Fritsch’s intention? “But the status of Fritsch’s statue remained elusive: it was a blank surface onto which different beliefs and anxieties could be projected” (p. 38). The second piece is by Maurizio Cattelan a clothed, kneeling child-size figure, which from behind looks like a child praying; from the front we are suddenly confronted with Hitler looking very strange indeed. “The double take is a double shock; as Cattelan points out, ‘you don’t know if he’s praying to have six million more people to kill, or for forgiveness’, and it poses the question, if Hitler asked for absolution, would God forgive him? (p. 68).

The Human Factor is a beautifully produced book, and apart from being an important edition to art lovers’ libraries, it should be essential reading for all art students. It not only gives an overview of the past 30 years of figurative sculpture but also gives a sense of the history and process of how art styles and fashions come and go. This may help students find their own voice, one that is not bullied by hide-bound art instructors and art gallery dictators. After all, it is “Better to have no public than to have no self!”

Last Updated 29th August 2014

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