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Alice Aycock: Sculpture and Projects

by Robert Hobbs
The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2005
400 pp., 154 illus. Trade, $50
ISBN: 0-262-08339-6.

Reviewed by Rob Harle


This book will surely become the definitive treatise on the extraordinary sculptor Alice Aycock. The author Robert Hobbs spent over seven years painstakingly researching and writing this profound scholarly work.

One of the reasons this book is so important is that Hobbs included the artist in his research. Extensive interviews and many quotations from the artist herself give the book a feeling of authenticity and honesty, which is sometimes missing from books simply written about artists. The main thrust of the book, in the form of essays, is a high level intellectual and critical discussion of Aycock’s work. This approach includes early developmental influences, formal training and university affiliations, and the artist’s philosophical investigations, which are considerable and diverse. I would have liked to have read a little more about Aycock’s personal life than the family details given in Chapter 2––Aycock on Her Family: Facts into Myths. This is about family history, not so much about the artist herself, Hobbs hints at "personal issues" concerning the artist but does not let us in on the details. "Aycock’s procedure, which has the incidental therapeutic benefit of sometimes distancing personal problems…" (p. 333).

Alice Aycock: Sculpture and Projects is lavishly illustrated in both colour and black & white. Photographs include finished sculptural works in situ, works in progress, drawings, paintings and a few images of the artist working. There are 24 chapters together with Appendices, Notes, Index, and an excellent Bibliography. The chapters are nicely balanced between those concerning description and appraisal of specific Aycock major projects and those of theoretical discussion that involve not only Aycock but (post) modern art and postmodernist art, generally. Barthes, Foucault, and Derrida influenced a whole generation of artists; some embraced their theories uncritically, others like Aycock, used the concepts that suited them and developed their own individual idiosyncratic art, transcending the strictures of formal "isms".

Aycock has an extensive and complex range of theoretical influences behind her work, including an interest in schizophrenia. Although this intellectual content is evident in many of her works, so also is the quality of forcing the viewer’s emotional response. As we see, "…art for Aycock does not just illustrate difficult concepts, it is a way to entice and even coerce viewers to experience the concepts directly for themselves and then wrangle with the difficulties of the work’s overall import" (p. 46). I’m not convinced about the level of integration of schizophrenia into Aycock’s work that both she and Hobbs actually claim. Somewhat like the surrealists, Aycock seems to play with the schizophrenic concept or condition from a "safe" position. If this aspect of Aycock’s work is significant then surely a chapter from a psychotherapeutic perspective would have been helpful.

As Hobbs writes, "Using art as means to bridge [the] gap between magic and science is one of the major goals of Aycock’s work" (p.13) As such, this book will interest Leonardo (ISAST) members, specifically, as Aycock’s work involves an historic evaluation of technology as well as a critical appraisal of the art-science connection. Much of Aycock’s work, especially her later pieces, make reference to, or actually contain, technological artefacts. Since 2000, Aycock has sometimes used computer software, specifically Form-Z, to design and evaluate sculpture prior to construction. One of her most stunning pieces using this technology is, Maze 2000, installed at the University of South Florida (plate 15).

There are many contentious issues raised throughout this book, not least of which are poststructuralist and postmodernist concepts. Hobbs, to his credit, at least recognises that Barthes (especially) does not necessarily have the last word on the death of the author concept. "The birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author". "The situation, however, is not so easily resolved as his [Barthes’] coup de grâce urbanely suggests" (p. 7). This view, together with a realistic critique of postmodernist theory, is an important point to understand; the failure to realise this would be embarrassing indeed.

The irony is, regardless of the cultural inputs, the theories behind conceptual art and the meaning of art’s "content" that have influenced Aycock throughout her career; at the end of the day the actual sculptural object (Maze or Three-fold Manifestation II for example), exist as 3D objects in space for the viewer to contemplate, much the same as Michelangelo’s David did when he created it. Make no mistake about this, Aycock is a truly great sculptor, and her personal signature is clearly evident throughout her work. This book does a powerful job of bringing her work further to our attention and unravelling some of its more arcane meanings. Perhaps the author is not dead, and there is still place for individual greatness and genius.




Updated 1st January 2006

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