Katherine Gili: Looking for the Physical was at Felix and Spear, Ealing, London, 10th November – 13th December 2016.
The sculptural power of Leonide, 1981-82, as it thrusts into space, to go no further back in Gili’s oeuvre, is clear affirmation that sculpture whose aim is to engage one immediately in a spatial way rather than having a predominant viewing point, does not need to do so equally from all points on the compass. Considered as an analogue for a structure, (with its figurative connotations in abeyance for the moment) its “stance” is forthright and unambiguous. It has remarkable physical presence from wherever it is viewed. It IS – it exists as an object in space, articulate and articulated, self-assertive and self-justifying (though that’s not all that it is). Each element is clearly defined in character and in its structural role. And it seems to say something about Gili herself, an enduring strength of character and artistic identity, proving that the unconscious reveals itself more through arduous realisation and reflection, than through perceptual self-trickery or doodling. It makes Giacometti for instance look very feeble indeed.
The fact that its structure is also a representation, if at some remove, of a body in movement allows one to accept without demur that it is anchored to a base and cantilevered from there.
When it comes to free-standing non-figurative sculpture, however, the question of “stance” becomes more problematic. And there is a danger that the pursuit of full three-dimensionality “in the round” can lead to the Giambologna syndrome – a spiralling contraposto that moves upward or around a centre and can only be terminated by some sort of top-knot or flourish. On first exposure to Gili’s Angouleme 2006-09, I felt that it suffered in this way, spiralling upwards from a tripodal connection to the ground, but on further acquaintance I became reconciled that this is not the case. What it does do structurally is to build upwards, twisting and turning in ways too complex to describe here, to establish a platform which serves as a launchpad to the next level, the next spiral movement. I found its complexity disarming and challenging, but it now seems abundantly clear, and still challenging, to one who is more au fait with the ambitions behind it than most viewers are likely to be.
Sculptures which aim for three-dimensionality with this degree of complexity on a large scale can threaten to become a kind of tangle. One somehow wants to see them broken open or pulled out into space more, as occurs in some of Gili’s earlier works, such as Sprite, 1989-91, and Serrata, 1994, so that there is not such a continuous flow and connection, part to part, throughout. Vervent III, with the range and variety of steel elements it uses, breaks the rhythm by introducing foreign elements into the structure ( I would love to see an expanded version of Vervent I and III); and yet to do so threatens to create potentially insurmountable structural problems on this larger scale, literally as well as sculpturally. And these problems are not hers alone, but are raised with varying degrees of success by all the sculptors who may be in pursuit of three-dimensional and spatial richness.
When a potentially free-standing sculpture is in a state of flux while under construction, it can be brought together to coalesce “up in the air”, by means of gantries, chains etc; it exists in open space. But there comes a point when these hanging parts are connected together, and it is then that junctions become crucial. The points of connection may be disguised by being spread or shared (this is how Angouleme works), but in the end it has to convince as a viable structure, however unlike other structures in the world it has become. And the old “magic glue” of welding will not convince, especially if a heavy weight of steel is made to cantilever improbably, putting undue strain on that weld, and in turn on other elements within the work. That is why Gili has evolved a complex web of connections spiralling up through the work.
It comes as something of a relief to be faced with these smaller and more modest works. They are part of a continuous chain of forged and torch-cut steel sculptures which began with Aspen, 1985-88, and includes such major successes as Volante, 1998; Vervent 1; 1998, Vervent II, 1999; Flow Free, 2005; Daedal, 2009; Vervent III, 2010; and Episodes, 2010.
Llobregat, in this exhibition, for me, distils the essence of sculpture. Its forged, hammered and torch-cut steel elements have assumed the permanence, the durability one meets in ancient artefacts in bronze or wrought iron. Each steel piece is taut, elastic or cursive, physically compelling, absolutely right in scale, the right note, the right length in the right place. Nothing is overstretched or over-torsioned (not always the case in Gili’s work). And one feels behind its cursive movements through space the weight of experience of how such movements are possible in the real world. And what I like so much in these small sculptures is the expressive force of the steel, as steel, with all the further associations that each formal element brings to the lyrical vitality of each sculpture. The modesty of scale in these small sculptures brings the steel factor even more fully to the fore.
It is as if the steel has become hardened through use and acquired the patina of long serving functional objects, functionless though they may be. Each element has a role in the structure of the sculpture which it fulfils with economy and expressive force. Of how many sculptures today can this be said?
It is perfectly possible to hold two contradictory views on the role of steel, or any material, and still to act – the one that it has unique properties that stimulate the imagination of the sculptor, whose sensibility is thus wedded to the material whose properties determine what is physically possible; and the other, that sculptural inspiration comes first, and steel is just a suitable vehicle for their expression. Both are no doubt in play here, but it seems to me that these small sculptures have the power that they have because the former persuasion is dominant, and without Gili getting inside the malleable properties of steel, as it were, in her way of working, they would not quite have the delicacy or the expressive range that they have.
It should go without saying that these properties of steel have to be projected into it, arising from the sculptor’s imagination, but there is no material more suited to the kind of plasticity sought here than steel, ductile, malleable, potentially tensile when tempered by the artist. It is like the issue of timbre, Klangfarbe in music; not just pitches and intervals, but the unique resonance of each instrument which colours the motif and projects it in the aural imagination of the listener.
But beside this hard, durable character in Gili’s art, there is a lyrical side. In the development of Gili’s sculpture since the late 1970s there is both a continuity and a dividing line between works which are clearly studies of anatomical movement, and works in which the sculpture has acquired an independent life, a sculptural plasticity, and the elements have been subsumed into this willed plasticity. There is a point at which the demands of the sculpture as sculpture have taken over, and the elements out of which it is built have begun to take on pressures which are to do with resolving the work as sculpture, and not to represent anything outside it. Although direct engagement with the body has receded since the 1980s, what has carried over into this independence from representation are ways of working the steel to draw out of it it’s full plastic potential – extruded elements which take on a three-dimensional life in relation to others in the work and contribute to its overall character as a sculpture, independently of naturalistic forms. There may be an inherent habitual tendency in perceivers to try to read figuration or representation into them, but there is nothing in the most achieved sculptures that would warrant such an interpretation.
However, this does not mean that they are totally non-representational. Plasticity implies that the “movement” represented through the matter of the sculpture as it turns through literal space is more than its literal movement. It implies greater movement, greater “force and counterforce” than is physically, and literally presented. There is therefore an element of illusionism present in all sculpture that is not just a technical demonstration or a mute object.
Quinary (shown at top of page), in this exhibition, a compressed version of the earlier Angouleme, is the sculpture that raises these issues the most. It is a companion piece to a number of other smaller sculptures of recent date, of varying success. The largest sculpture Gili presented at Flowers Central Gallery in 2015, Meril, 2014, seemed to me complex but successful. If I have a criticism of the works on this scale, such as Quaternary, shown at the R.A. last summer, it is that there can be an undue thickening out and twisting of some elements, which acquire a somewhat heavy character, which is answered by or echoed by counter torsions in an over-complex roundalay. Some elements with multiple twists along their length appear to have a load-bearing function that they seem ill-equipped to handle, and this can lead to doubts about the structural logic, or viability of the sculpture as a whole. There is a tension between the actual physical structure and the plastic and spatial structure, and it is not always clearly overcome. I’d like to see them break out of this in some way. This at least was my reaction in front of the sculpture, but the more I look at the photographs of it from different angles, the less these criticisms seem to hold up. I don’t know quite what that says about the sculpture, or about me.
However Quinary does not raise such doubts to anything like the same degree. It arises more as a problem in larger sculptures which approach waist or head-height. Again I repeat, these are problems that are not confined to Gili’s sculptures alone, but are common to the work of others who broadly share her concerns, with allowance for all due differences.
In Quinary there is no feeling that the structural weight is being carried by welds, for instance, or that it is borne hazardously in ways that cast doubt on its credibility as a total “organism”, so successfully is the integration of multi-directional sculptural forms which carry upwards through the piece. Without describing it in detail, a mammoth task, consider one element in the lower centre of the work, the bent wishbone-like form which seguays into a quite different mini-structural element at an oblique angle to it, which in turn supports an upper movement convincingly, i.e. sculpturally, not literally. That “wishbone” form is itself supported by two pincer movements from elements of quite different character, and so on. That I refer to it as wishbone-like does not imply that it is derived from organic form, but just that it is necessary to use some form of simile in order to identify it from other forms in the work. And the simile is much less evident in front of the work than it is in photographs.
This transformation of material in the service of plasticity has become increasingly sophisticated in Gili’s art, from the likes of Llobregat, Bold, 1988, and Sprite, 1989-91. It has become an evolved language of form. However on a larger scale the tendency for the working of the steel to invoke naturalistic form can be distracting. But it is easy, though misconceived, for detractors to characterise this work as “figurative”. The problem for many viewers is that they are not used, and not prepared, to invest enough time to really examine what is going on in these highly concentrated and complex works, which require a certain empathy from the observer if they are to be grasped at all. Quaternary, shown at the Royal Academy last summer, was difficult, though rewarding. The question of the accessibility and visibility of all movement within the sculpture is answered in the affirmative by Quinary.
Naiant is reminiscent of some of Tim Scott’s small sculptures and should be compared with them in some future exhibition, or in the Musee Imaginaire we are all obliged to live in due to the desuetude of contemporary curatorial attitudes and gallery fixations. It equals them in the variety of its worked steel components and the fluid “language” created from them. Scott’s Moment of Rhythm, 1989, or Feminine for Structure I, 1986, would make interesting comparisons, though I am not for a moment implying that the one derives from the other. Gili is on a trajectory of her own, and has been for a long time. (A Musee Imaginaire that would include Rodin’s Crouching Woman, Leonide , Anthony Smart’s First Figure 1981-82, Tim Scott’s Adele VIII, 1994, and go on to include the more recent and more “abstract” works of these and other sculptors of the same persuasion.)
There is no need to analyse the smaller sculptures shown here. They are the felicitous, relaxed and playful offspring of harder won works like Llobregat and Flow Free. Mulled, Quicksap, and Turnsole are simply pure sculpture of a very high order, ampler volumetrically and spatially than they look in reproduction. Each one is a little gem of pure sculptural invention. Mulled is closest in feeling to some of Scott’s smallest table works. And analysing or describing them would not make them any more amenable to the insensitive. It would be like trying to explain a melody, albeit a complex one with many feints and turns.
Naiant beats Caro’s table pieces on their own ground, being terser and less decorative, less to do with placement, more interactive in the physical pressure of part on part, and exploiting the expressive properties of steel, as moulded in the artist’s sensibility through her direct making.
Anyone who sees figuration in Quicksap deserves a slap on the wrist. After all, to eliminate all reference to things or structures in the world of the senses, even if it were possible, would leave one with something very arid indeed from a sculptural point of view, like a model of some scientific postulate (behind appearances), or a systems diagram.
This is where a sculpture like David Smith’s Tower Eight, 1957, shown recently at the R.A., scores, albeit with a minimal “physicality”. Although it resembles nothing in nature, its structure is transparent, lucid, if crazy, fully available to sight. We know that it is literally held together by welds, but its structure as sculpture seems entirely plausible, self justifying. One does not question its means of support, so dispersed throughout the work are its points of junction. Irrational, yet amenable to reason, one does not need to use the word “pictorial ” to define it. Within its very narrow range of physicality and three-dimensionality, it none-the-less points the way to a possible resolution of the issues faced by the ambitious among today’s sculptors. Blackburn, Song of an Irish Blacksmith, 1949-50, in the same exhibition, has a richer plasticity and inventiveness with steel. How “pictorial” is it, and by what means is its pictorialism established? – by distancing of parts and abrupt changes of scale relative to one another, establishing a greater visual distance than the literal space between them. Welded to a base these sculptures may be, but this gives them a freedom to operate that totally free-standing sculpture struggles with. Which brings us back to Leonide again. Although one has to say that the eloquent and rich plasticity of the likes of Llobregat, Vervent III, Mulled, Quicksap and Turnsole, and the range of formal elements they employ, are of a physicality and three-dimensionality beyond anything achieved by Smith, or Caro, for that matter – really sculptural, in short.
And there are other sculptures from the past careers of Scott, Smart and Gili herself, pre-Leonide, that are worth another look in this context, but that would be to take one too far away from this modest but intriguing exhibition.
Postscript: it should be said that as well as the sculptors already mentioned, Robert Persey, Mark Skilton and Robin Greenwood, to name only the steel sculptors, are engaged with many of these and related issues right now. Who knows what the future will hold? Skilton in particular seems to have evolved a bold and expansive style out of the way of building employed by Gili in her early Towards Aspen, 1984, though it is doubtful that there is a conscious link there.