Katherine Gili: Discovered in the Making is at Felix and Spear, Ealing, 5 May -2 June 2018
Five years ago I drafted an article for abstractcritical focussing on the works by Anthony Caro and Katherine Gili in the 2013 RA Summer Exhibition, neither of which I liked. The Gili, a sculpture of complicated forged parts that circulated a central void, with big alien feet and a prop to one side to steady it all, was called “Ripoll”. I had previously shown this work in Poussin Gallery in 2011, though I think Gili amended it slightly before it got to the RA, where it won the Jack Goldhill Award for Sculpture. In the essay I described it as having a banal configuration, to which Katherine took great exception (though I stand by it) and our previously close relations were, and remain, soured, despite my withdrawing the essay prior to publication.
Why bring this up now? In Robert Persey’s interesting catalogue essay for Katherine’s new show at Felix and Spear, which has work far superior to “Ripoll”, and which I will address shortly, he writes:
“Katherine’s ambition for her sculpture is predicated on a search for full three dimensionality, beyond the creation of a simple shape or form, beyond rotundity or intimidating spread across space.”
These sentiments I agree with completely, and they are obviously incompatible with banal configurations, and possibly with any configurations at all, though that’s up for discussion. Does the new sculpture match these ambitions? When I rewrote the said essay and expunged all reference to “Ripoll”, and indeed Gili, I concentrated on a critique of Caro. The revised version (published here: https://abstractcritical.com/article/anthony-caro-at-gagosian-some-problems-of-sculpture/index.html) started thus:
“Three-dimensionality is the elephant in the room marked “abstract” in the house of sculpture. It’s a difficult subject for discussion, and a difficult condition for sculptors to address. So why bother with it? Caro doesn’t worry; sometimes he uses it sparingly, sometimes not at all. I think it is the biggest issue in sculpture right now… because in directly addressing it the abstract artist is forced to abandon the narrow and dated (and admittedly often languidly beautiful) two-dimensional planar aesthetics of high modernism, whilst simultaneously rejecting the pratfalls of post-modernist subjective clap-trap. It provides potential and impetus for a new and true way forward. So important do I regard this issue that I frankly think there is no alternative other than to directly confront it – a notion for which I may well be considered narrow-minded. Yet, could we even begin to crack open this particular nut, I’m disposed to think that abstract art would broaden out considerably from its currently unambitious and unoriginal ruts and furrows. Almost anything that one can do that addresses this issue seems to point inexorably toward exciting uncharted waters.”
If anything, I now think that understates the case. But questions remain: What do we mean by three-dimensionality in sculpture? Do I mean the same as Robert Persey when we both write those words? And what does that “full” mean, before “three-dimensionality? All objects, sculptures or not, are three-dimensional, so are we both talking about something more than the quotidian three-dimensionality of any-thing and every-thing? And is work that references the figure/body able to achieve three-dimensionality in the fullest sense that we can now begin to comprehend it?
In relation to Katherine’s new work, how does this play out? Does the question of whether the work is abstract or not need addressing? I think so, but let’s work back to that. Gili’s approach to three-dimensionality is predicated on the body, and, according to Persey’s essay, on an engagement, partly subconscious, of our kinaesthetic sense of bodily position and movement, and thus how we relate physically to the illusions of movement and articulation that are set in train by various means within the work. I’m happy to go along part-way with that, but maybe only until such time as I’m pulled up short by problems with the extent of the three-dimensional ambition, or its delivery. I say that in the belief that the limits of such an ambition are still out of sight.
“Escapade”, which from its date appears to be the most recent work in the show, and which I think is also the best of all the new sculpture, seems to be Gili’s most sustained effort yet to fulfil the aspirations of a new, more comprehensively-fulfilled three-dimensionality. As always with Katherine, there is a reliance on the metaphorical physicality that the plasticising of hot metal under the hammer brings to the work, which operates as a felt allusion to push and pull, stretch and compression, a methodology rather ubiquitous throughout the steelwork (less so on the bronze casts of paper models), and which so frequently is perceived as having a linear kind of movement. That too, like figuration, can work restrictively against three-dimensionality. In other work in the show, “Kyanite” being the most obvious example, there is a familiar sense of the limitations of this approach, as parts seek to leave the core of the work and travel out in a forcefully spatial way, only to have to do an about-turn and travel back the way they came – and then repeat themselves. This two-way linearity seems like an unconscious response to having “nothing to do” once the sculpture gets spatially “out there” (perhaps not knowing how then to address or control that newly gained space?) and the very particular steelwork relating to the “getting out there” becomes isolated (spatially) from the rest of the work. That “nothing to do” is key, because what is there “to do” in a sculpture that is NOT a figure, but behaves as if it was? Is the “travel” itself the thing? This problem, if such it is (I think it is), is essentially related to figuration and sculpture derived from the body.
“Escapade” partially answers these questions, firstly because of the degree to which it avoids a reliance upon linearity for the relationships between elements to be allowed to develop. Because of a new-found proximity, these elements can operate effectively in engaging with the spaces between, so that the eye perhaps can form more connections that don’t always rely upon travel along and through the material; and thus do not remain always within and through the self-conscious squeeze-and-tug “language” of the forging. That is, they have the potential to operate more fluidly and freely, between themselves, in more visually “spontaneous” and less premeditated ways. Like anything, there are dangers in this way too, of becoming (or returning to) the old “optical” and non-physical sculptural modes of the sixties. But that problem is not immanent here at all, precisely because the work is so grounded in the manipulation of material. I think, by the way, that this could be enhanced by less “finish” on the work, which seems at times to be an intrusive and disconcertingly dematerialising factor, turning steel to look-alike clay or bronze. But in any case, this “language” of push and stretch could perhaps be eased up on a little and added to with different ways of using steel, without any danger of the work becoming unphysical. And in any case, as I’m hinting at, physicality alone is not enough to gain full three-dimensionality.
“Escapade”, again to its credit, avoids ending up with (or starting from?) a limiting configuration, such as occurs in “Graven”, which has plenty of physicality in the material, but suffers from a diagonal symmetry that restricts free articulation and turns us back to the disappointments of “sculpture as object”. Of course, “Graven” is three-dimensional, like all the work in the show; but not specially three-dimensional; not focussed upon it, not all that insightful about it.
That diagonal symmetry in linear form runs through a lot of Gili’s recent sculpture, perhaps starting as far back as “Sprite”, 1989-91, and “Powering Forth”, 2005; and driven to extremes in the overwrought “Bitter Joy”, 2005. It has its roots in the work made more or less directly from the model in the late eighties, like the cranked pelvic stance of “Ingreer”, 1988-89 and others, the impetus for which really originated in some of Degas’ more radically articulated figure sculptures. Of Gili’s new work, as well as “Graven”, there are hints of this diagonal “scheme” in both “Meril” and “Jaracanda”, which in my opinion counts against what the work in other ways seems to want to do or say. It is without question a figurative (or if you prefer, a semi-figurative) configuration. If a truly expansive and liberated three-dimensionality is to be the aim, then “Escapade” moves in the right direction – away from symmetry and the balanced deployment of worked material that gets too close to “image” or idea. “Escapade” heads out towards a different future, an altogether lumpier and more problematically complex mix of physicality and spatiality.
Though I much prefer it, there might be said to be a loss in taking this direction. The lyricism which runs through works like “Kyanite” and “Meril”, which has been a lengthy and strong thread in Gili’s work, and perhaps a positive one in much earlier works such as “Pistil”, 1978, and “Rise”, 1979, has gone missing from “Escapade”. Personally, I think that’s OK. That kind of organic lyricism was part of abstract art’s seventies reaction to the minimal/hard edge geometry of the sixties, though it was much more prevalent in painting than in sculpture. It’s been lauded by Alan Gouk on this site, in works such as the plant-like figuration of “Volante”, but it is not now a mode of expression that can take us much further, precisely because of its limitations to three-dimensional development. Yet maybe that’s not true: maybe Katherine’s lyricism can be taken forward; maybe even the crazy expressive forgings in “Ripoll” can make a come-back. But maybe it would have to divorce the organic, biomorphic and figurative aspects to configuration that it has held on to so far, and adopt a looser, less prefigured outcome. If the forgings got chopped up more, and used more imaginatively, so they have less linearity, then a lyrical abstract mode of working may be a very exciting possibility. Things are more open now; nothing is certain; lots of things are looking possible – except lack of three-dimensionality. What a sculpture must “do” is more fluid, not so structurally assertive; or the structure is of a different order. That does NOT mean that the sculpture needs to become spatially over-extended or dissipated; far from it. It means that the relationship between material and space must be governed more exactly (and yet more loosely) and more intimately, and above all, more imaginatively. The integration of physicality and spatiality in new sculpture is really hardly begun.
Here is more from Persey’s catalogue essay:
“For any ‘thing’ to be made it must somehow be imagined. For Katherine Gili imagination is not a linear matter of idea first and manufacture second. Yet sculpture is a made thing rather than a manufactured thing and though imagination may be sparked from some impulse gleaned from one’s physical experiences it can gain an impetus, a transposition and clarity as it is applied through the process of working with a material. Katherine’s attitude has always been characterised by the deliberate discipline of discovery through making. Not composing, not arranging and not collaging but constructing with fashioned elements in a search for an expressive structure. A structure whose components are defined and connected, one bearing upon another, articulating to create their own space, to enhance the space of its neighbour and the whole thing simultaneously and with an intensity that resonates. A structure made only to be seen and felt in a journey from the senses to the mind and back again.”
I like this paragraph, and I agree with most of it (whilst perhaps wanting to know more about the difference between “made” and “manufactured”). And of course I agree with the title of the exhibition: “Discovered in the Making” – because what else is there? Persey’s optimism and positivism is welcome. And is it true? Perhaps not quite yet. “A structure whose components are defined and connected, one bearing upon another, articulating to create their own space, to enhance the space of its neighbour and the whole thing simultaneously and with an intensity that resonates” is not quite fulfilled by any single piece of sculpture in the show, not even by “Escapade”. Maybe no-one has done this yet, fully. The statement begs more questions: How are the components defined? Crucially, WHEN are they defined – before or after they come together (a key question when so much effort goes into the forging and shaping of individual pieces, which surely risks over-definition)? How do they connect and bear upon one another in order to articulate the space? Is that always through the material, or through their spatial proximity? Is the resulting intensity physical or visual? Or both? To what extent can things that have lots of work invested in them of a certain order (like the forging) be transformed or abandoned along the way in the cause of a greater three-dimensionality?
“Escapade” is not completely out of the woods; there is a kind of configuration – a main stack of stuff, off which a secondary and smaller open lump of active steelwork thrusts out. How is this achieved (sculpturally, I mean, not literally)? What is the relationship between the larger part and the smaller part, and indeed, how do they both relate to the “spread” at the base which holds it up? Is that relationship made through the material and its more-or-less linear activity – on a kind of stalk or branch off the main core? I think, positively, that there is something else at play here, which enables me to see the work in a more whole way than perhaps I can the other sculptures in the show. The steelwork is more spatially integrated. I like it more because it is both more and less specific; less specific literally, more specific sculpturally. I’d like to see this sculpture in a bigger space, to get a better idea of how that all works all the way round, because that obviously is key to its three-dimensionality.
Full-on three-dimensionality, which is territory not previously covered by any other discipline, including figurative sculpture, involves the quest for work that looks integrated from every-which-way that you can look at it. I don’t see a way round that, if you’ll pardon the pun. In the pursuit of this, there seems to be a requirement for the surrender of long-held notions about literal and hierarchical structures that have wholly or partially pervaded the workings of most sculpture. That’s my shot in the dark, that necessity for change to how sculpture is thought about – and no doubt it will not entirely tally, if at all, with Katherine’s vision. Nevertheless, I recognise in “Escapade” something new and ambitious.
I think there is a lot more potential to new abstract sculpture than the vicarious physicality of kinaesthesia, and we should not over-simplify or take lightly these new problems. Sculpture needs to address lots of things all at once, including but not exclusively, physicality. Most of all, there needs to be some degree of intelligence made visible, making itself apparent through the toil and tangle of working with such high ambitions. If unconstrained but coherent three-dimensionality does become of itself the central ambition for sculpture – though this is a far from simple project – then other sculptural issues are cast in a rather different light. Kinaesthesia can from this viewpoint start to look slightly overrated.
Testing 1>2 at Empson Street Studios
It’s a long trek, physically, spatially, metaphorically, from the shabby-chic far-out-west reaches of suburban South Ealing (“Practically in bloody Cornwall!”) to the edgy-but-not-very-hip eastern ends of London Central; two tubes and a DLR ride, past the sky-crazy Isle-of-Dogs and the funfair-fab kinaesthetic 900 bend in the track at Poplar; and so on to Devon’s Road and John Bunker’s second iteration of the Testing 1>2 format.
That intro is in homage to John’s trippily-titled new website https://instantloveland.com, which starts with, amongst others, an interesting piece of writing on open dialogue and open minds in art discussions (who could that be aimed at?) by the talented EC – that’s her name, not her address. And EC is one of the eleven artists chosen to pick a single A. N. Other (no, that’s not a name), making twenty-two in all, crammed into the little gallery at Empson Street. By necessity, all the works are small, some tiny. By definition (John’s), all the works deal with “…aspects of abstraction specifically.”
Well, maybe. John delivers his quotable agitprop intro on the back of the info sheet, but it feels a bit flat, this show. “What, if anything, can we glean from these visual combinations, liaisons, dialogues and potential stand offs between artworks?”, he asks. And sort-of answers, “In truth, art that’s any good contains all the vital aspects of historical understanding.” Maybe, again. But in any case, how do we know what’s good? John never gives us answers, and Brancaster this is not.
Is there any mutual influence going on with these artists, critical or otherwise? I don’t think so. I can’t see it. I liked EC’s collage a lot; and too the absolute certain precision of Charley Peters’ little green painting, which despite being antithetical to everything I believe abstract art should be, was quite mesmerising, imparting an unfamiliar kind of ambition I can’t help but believe is real. Alexandra Harley’s little bronze is good but doesn’t quite give itself enough room to sing. Mostly though, the work here seems gleefully and resolutely “anti-ambition”. Which is interesting, but suspicious. Because, well… I’m so unchallenged by it. Having been at art school in the sixties, a lot of it looks sadly familiar. “Oh god, not that again…!”
Meanwhile, over in Virtual-land, I love this, from the home page of Instantloveland:
“Instantloveland takes its name from a painting made by Jules Olitski at the very point in the late 20th century at which the Modernist hegemony in advanced art began to unravel; and it offers a platform for all forms of discourse that seek to better understand what has happened to abstract art between then and now. By both reaching back into its past and considering its potential futures, Instantloveland will explore how abstract art has continued to interact with broader aspects of social and cultural change, whether they be aesthetic, political, philosophical, and/or technological.”
Only John could write that. Big ambition, eh? They are talking the talk, but will they walk the walk, or just fall in with the post-modern “Hegemony of the Patronisingly Un-Critical”? I hope they get it together, because then I can retire Abcrit.