Modern British Sculpture – Mission Creep

When travelling abroad, workers’ canteens yield culinary delight as the bill is small and the richness of the experience unexpected. Expectation grows in proportion to resource committed. Thus, I thoroughly enjoyed the Modern British Sculpture exhibition at the Royal Academy. It was a no-brainer; I entered free with an RA Friend, and my expectations were directed to the vision of a long overdue natter. And those cakes and sofas beyond The Friends’ Room door.
The curation of the exhibition was a masterpiece – a ballsy, creative act in itself by Penelope Curtis and Keith Wilson that overpowered the work itself. Thorny questions posed and answered through interpretation on one shared view of the development of British Sculpture. More than a little of the space was occupied with works which weren’t real, or weren’t British, or weren’t Modern – but they were helping ‘place’ works which were.
But I’ve realised I’m not really interested in how sculpture is ‘developing’. I’m just interested in experiencing work that isn’t arid or cold. And for me, there wasn’t much of it around. So where the work is thin on the ground and nobly staged it doesn’t leave much possibility for richness or ambiguity, or for finding hidden treasures. For those wanting intellectual mind-massage with their three-dimensional form, then we live in a great age. But slogging on a train up to London, one wants to have an enriching visual experience rather than read interpretation and essays. Or why not just stay at home, interrogate the web and buy the catalogue online?
The real reason for the apparent disdain of the average visitor is the paucity of works of recent sculpture anywhere with which we genuinely warmly engage with and which affect us in ways more subtle than the easily won shock arena. One-trick pony imagery and those relying on sheer size – or their borrowed surrounding landscapes – will not retain monumental status when shorn of these associations; they will not endure.
In his 1931 work The Meaning of Art, Herbert Read documented three stages of experience. Firstly, the mere perception of material qualities. Secondly, the arrangement of such perceptions into pleasing (or dissonant) shapes, associations or patterns – these together fulfilling the aesthetic sense. The third stage seemingly appears when such an arrangement of perceptions happens to correspond with emotion or feeling; where expression can be felt and which can affect us – which is the bit that I hope sometimes creeps into my own work, in some unforeseen way… and that I hope to find occasionally on such jaunts.

The cakes were good though. And the 4000 year old Sumerian duck-shaped weight. Although the latter was mere supporting cast.