Acquisitions of contemporary Australian sculpture


A glance at any of the recent large-scale survey exhibitions of contemporary Australian sculpture1‘Australian Sculpture No – Second Australian Sculpture Triennial’ was held at the National Gallery of Victoria, 6 November 1984 – 28 January 1985; ‘Ninth Mildura Sculpture Triennial’ was held at the Mildura Arts Centre and its surrounding environment, 6 April – 26 May 1985; ‘Sculpture 85’ was focused at the World Trade Centre, Melbourne, January 1985. reveals in an instant the multifarious state of that art form. Consistent with current European and American attitudes, Australian sculpture may assume the guise of an environmental installation, a performance or a composition involving light sources and suspended, wall-mounted and floor-based forms displaying more than a passing resemblance to an eccentric theatre set. These activities, together with the fabrication of monolithic, enclosed and more conventional sculpture, frequently exploit the considerable plastic and expressive potential of newly developed, light-weight, relatively easy to use and richly coloured synthetic materials. At the same time, it is perfectly clear that more traditional sculpture processes – in particular, cast and assembled metal – have in no sense ceased to be valid and appropriate means for the contemporary sculptor, nor have they lost any of their distinctive formal challenge. Amongst the acquisitions of Australian sculpture made by the Gallery over the past two years are nine works by both older and younger generation sculptors, which underscore this claim. 

  

Interestingly, three of the seven sculptors involved – Clifford Last, Inge King and Lenton Parr – were original members of the pioneering, Melbourne-based Centre 5 group2The Centre 5 group comprised the sculptors Julius Kane, Inge King, Clifford Last, Lenton Parr, Vincas Jomantas and Teisutis Zikaras. They held joint exhibitions from 1959. The name of the group derives from the five-point program devised by Kane, which was strongly oriented towards the development of a broader community understanding and awareness of modern Australian sculpture. The group also sought better representation for Australian sculptors in the various state galleries, and endeavoured to encourage the practice of incorporating modern sculpture within prospective architectural projects. An account of Centre 5 activities may be found in Graeme Sturgeon, The Development of Australian Sculpture 1788–1975, London, 1978, and Ken Scarlett, Australian Sculptors, Melbourne, 1980. and the purchases of their recent work complement earlier examples already in the Gallery’s collection. The dazzling lucidity and intensely cerebral nature of these current works demonstrate how each artist has pursued the refinement of a strictly formal and subtly geometricised language without any sacrifice of personality or a sense of the sculpture as a poignant expression of the artist’s response to a broad range of psychological, natural or artistic sources. For example, Clifford Last’s reputation is very largely based upon his long association with wood as a medium and with a highly restrained method which gently coaxes animistic qualities from the very fibres of his essentially vertical, crisply interlocking forms. The Gallery’s collection includes two earlier pieces by Last: Standing Abstract 1956*, in polychromed rosewood; and Lucis 1965–66**, in jarrah. They demonstrate Last’s consummate technique which treats the medium with such empathy that the process itself, although clearly visible in the dappled and richly textured surfaces, retreats to allow these lithe, perfectly balanced and enclosed forms to address the viewer with the authority of a miraculously composed natural form, such as a section of bone, a shell or a fossil. 

Last’s highly disciplined style evolved gradually and steadily from the quietly stylised figuration of the earliest exhibited works of the mid to late 1940s, through the increasingly biomorphic sculptures of the 1950s and 1960s, to the starkly hieratic forms of the following decades. These latter works reveal a strenuous refinement and simplification of form and surface, and, in addition, a growing aloofness of image brought on by the forging of parts into a more wholly geometric – at times, almost emblematic – composition. 

As a natural progression from these clipped and carefully tiered works, the sculptor has experimented lately with assemblages which retain his traditional vertical format, but are composed of industrial wooden patterns used in foundries for the casting of machine parts. A number of artists, including the Australian sculptor Colin Lanceley,3Colin Lanceley’s The King in his counting house 1964–65, purchased by the National Gallery of Victoria in 1976, is one such work utilising found objects, such as industrial wooden patterns. have utilised such patterns for their precise and logical configurations and for their extraordinary wealth of formal detail, such as flanges, bosses, cones, cylinders, discs, and so on. 

Last had previously constructed sculpture from found objects, but had never embarked upon so concerted a course with this method as he now has done in the recent series of works, subsequently cast in bronze. In reference to the Gallery’s Metamorphosis I 1984 (fig. 1), the sculptor has written: 

A number of times I have constructed sculpture from found objects, once from a pile of cedar library legs I was given, when the V.N.G. [National Gallery of Victoria] moved from Swanston Street, and exhibited in a solo show in 1969. Another exhibition in 1978 I included work built around adjustable wooden wheels that had waited in a corner of the studio for two years before I saw their possibilities. 

 

Phillip Canizzo insisted I buy up two truck loads of wooden patterns for metal castings at a foundry auction, kindly storing half in his studio, and eighteen months later my enthusiasm equalled his and during 1984 I completed four pieces and had them cast in bronze.4Extract from a letter from Clifford Last to the author, 28 March 1985. 

As demonstrated in the warmly patinated Metamorphosis I, the found forms are unified and invested with an enhanced expressive power by subtle alteration or augmentation, and by the introduction, at crucial points in the work, of simpler, ‘softer’ sections fabricated by the sculptor. These non-industrial segments perform a vital role in tempering the mechanical austerity of the wood patterns and serve the function of punctuating the complex rhythm and dialogue established by the juxtaposition of assembled patterns. In the sculptor’s words, the wooden patterns ‘were often canabilized [sic] and reshaped, with simple forms of warehouse timber introduced to “cool” the detailing of the patterns.’5ibid. The title of the work itself refers to the transformation of character which occurs when the patterns are incorporated into a highly formalised object which bears no conceivable relationship to the purposes of the original products cast in metal from the same shapes. 

The columnar, laterally-traversed format of works such as Metamorphosis I can be considered as an extension of the pronounced cruciform structure of earlier wood carvings. It also suggests that the sculptor continues to draw for inspiration upon the elementary truths and states of mind which gave rise to his earliest investigations of figuration or anthropomorphism. In this quest to discover new means to express fundamental spiritual attitudes the sculptor has brought his restrained and disciplined sculptural language to a new peak of precision. The recent casts are richly patinated and their gleaming surfaces possess a warmth and a depth which greatly contribute to a sense of formal resonance and a commanding and yet impressively civilised presence. 

Where Clifford Last’s latest work is ultimately concerned with the establishment of visual rhythm and meaning by a process of juxtaposing chiefly rectangular solids, a comparable mastery of open spatial relationships is achieved in the works by Last’s former Centre 5 colleagues, Inge King and Lenton Parr. 

Black magic 1984–85 by Inge King (fig. 2) is an assembled steel work painted a svelte matt black. It joins three earlier works6A small bronze panel, Magician, purchased 1961; a maquette (steel) for an A.M.Ρ sculpture, presented in 1971; untitled maquette (steel, aluminium), purchased 1981. by this sculptor in the collection, which could not be considered as appropriate to represent her mature style. King’s constructivism is distinguished by an unerring sense of monumentality which, especially in recent works like Black Magic, is infused with a decidedly lyrical, often calligraphic element. King’s sculpture is widely known as a consequence of her many important public commissions – one of the most recent and most outstanding being Forward surge, installed near the Gallery on the grassed bank separating the Concert Hall and the Theatres. The four colossal arched units of that sculpture evoke an awesome wave motion which, it seems, might eventually result in a great and terrifying pounding and cascading of matter at the foot of the work. But, for the moment, the motion is suspended, frozen, so that the observer may move beneath and between the great arcs and experience the energy which charges the intervening space. Albeit on a reduced scale, Black magic also speaks of the endeavour to invest a work with intense energy and tautness, whilst providing large discs or sections of heavy metal with an agreeable sense of lightness and buoyancy. Black magic is one of a series of recent pieces which incorporate framing devices within which individual components may be viewed or juxtaposed in a variety of pseudo-‘pictorial’ compositions. Sometimes various units in these newer works assume a character not previously encountered in King’s work. Such units could be designated as possessing a certain literal quality in that they invite interpretation as a passageway, a door, a shelter, and so on. 

Black magic provides no clues in this regard, but it does demonstrate the sculptor’s current preoccupation with what I have described as a ‘pictorial’ composition. The work has a principal viewing angle – as does Clifford Last’s Metamorphosis I – and is contained by a rectangular frame supported above a solid, rectangular base. The base, in turn, gives rise to the focus of the work: the large, gently rolled disc gracefully balanced upon a slender stem, whose proportions and direction are echoed in a small finial sprouting from the uppermost member of the frame. The disc sits just behind the framing device and to one side of the tableau, and is balanced in terms of density, profile and placement by the somewhat impertinent coil which lurches towards the orb from the far corner of the tableau. This is a splendidly witty gesture, combining deference with comedy in a decision which perfectly and coolly contrasts the slow and lissom choreography of the large disc with the more frolicsome rhythm of the coil. Black magic is a work which invites the viewer to take stock of the negative, airy spaces within the frame, as well as the impeccable distribution and selection of the forms themselves. Here is a rigorously formalist sculpture which exudes, in no small measure, a quality of mystery entirely befitting its title. 

The two large steel sculptures by Lenton Parr, Perseus and Andromeda 1984 (fig. 3), were purchased following their inclusion in the retrospective exhibition in 1984 of Parr’s sculpture and drawing. At the time of the exhibition they were the sculptor’s most recent work, and they represented a move away from the horizontal format with which he has always been most comfortable. They did, however, encapsulate the achievements of the past decade, which saw the sculptor steadily reducing his vocabulary to thin strips or ribbons of steel which were utilised in complex spatial compositions rather like a species of three-dimensional calligraphy. Only, in these works, the calligrapher’s brush, loaded with dense black ink, was replaced by the welding torch and vice and a heavy, industrial metal. That the extreme disparity of means involved in this analogy is not at all matched by disparity in the freedom and rhythm of the final product is a true measure of the success of the pieces. Referring to the latest work, the sculptor has written: 

So far as I can see at present this mode of working provides an ample repertoire of forms for my purposes. The sculptures that result owe nothing to natural appearances but seem to me to fulfil my aims of balance, rhythm and unity and the vitality of stance and force of gesture that denote life. 

 

The most recent work is an ensemble of two sculptures I have named Perseus and Andromeda. In these I have tried to suggest that sculptures can encounter and respond to each other in much the same way that they communicate with a beholder.7Extract from the artist’s statement in the catalogue to the exhibition, ‘Lenton Parr Sculpture’, held at the National Gallery of Victoria, 27 October 1984 – 17 February 1985. 

The two sculptures may be considered as either separate or interdependent works. They complement one another, not only in terms of profile and placement but also in the sense that the restrained gyrations and gentle eddying movements inherent in the smaller work, Andromeda, are appropriately answered by the greater agitation and outward flailing of the Perseus. The dialogue thus established is sustained by a myriad of supple and jubilant rhythms which are interwoven in a dual composition of breathtaking poise.

The work of the three younger generation sculptors – Lou Lambert, Donald Gore and Paul Hopmeier – is further proof of the diversity of expression which may be achieved within a single idiom, in this instance assembled metal sculpture. 

Admittedly, Lambert’s Beyond Yan Yare 1983 (fig. 4) is a mixed media piece. The core of the work is a pyramidal pile of stone (iron ore aggregrate to be precise), and this is contained on one face by a wing-shaped sheet of rusted, industrial, steel mesh and on the ground by a heavy coil of wire ‘rope’. From 1976 to 1978 Lambert worked as studio assistant to the English sculptor, Phillip King, and that artist’s deployment of transparent and solid forms is a clear influence on Lambert. In its specific use of the aggregate, Beyond Yan Yare, as with other contemporary works by Lambert, may refer to mining activities. But the sparkling reddish-brown colour of the mass of stone is in such perfect harmony with the comparable hue of the mesh and coil that all possible notions of political comment are transcended by the sheer ingeniousness of the composition. It is a composition which teases us with illusion and seduces the eye with the rich patination of surfaces, the optical flicker established by the fine and regular perforations of the mesh grid, and the extraordinary contrast of textures from the orderly to the organic. 

Our concentration is further engaged by the subtle geometry of the work. The sides of the pile of aggregate act as precise extensions of the diagonals of the mesh grid; the grid bisects the circular coil; the areas of mesh not obscured by aggregate appear to be equilateral triangles. From the reverse side of the grid the pile of aggregate is seen in soft shadow, and we are impressed by the utter density of this section. Beyond Yan Yare is an idiosyncratic work which does not easily relinquish its formal mysteries. However, any attempt to analyse its structure is handsomely rewarded by an unexpected wealth of formal paradox.

By comparison, Donald Gore’s Evening veil 1983 (fig. 5) is a marvellously succinct and entirely open configuration. Its lightness of touch and delicacy of voice are such that it seems in danger of being shouted down in all but the most respectful and subdued of circumstances. We see here a slender and finely articulated statement possessing some resemblance to a curious note in a musical score. Gore’s manner of assembling tubular and flat steel plate, replete with cusped and scalloped sections, is eloquent formalism. Although the work may seem to exist in two dimensions only, the gradual tilt of the scalloped strip, the twist of the supporting foot and the illusory perspectival taper on the arc projecting from the vertical member, are fastidiously devised to encourage our eye to effect a fuller reading of the work. 

If Gore’s sculpture is skeletal in nature, then Paul Hopmeier’s battleship-grey Seventy 1983 (fig. 6) could be cellular. His form is not entirely enclosed but the matrix of billowing, hollow and bridging sheets permits only a few glimpses through to its far side. Hopmeier has now moved on to assemble sculpture from found sheets of timber and plywood. However, Seventy is a well-resolved example of his previous work, with gently furled and arched sheets of steel plate. This vocabulary here is restricted to variations on a curved, tapering and fragmentary shape, and within this severe context he has achieved a fluid, swirling rhythm which twists about a concealed, imaginary axis. The non-committal grey finish allows for the graduated play of light across forms – a process which gives the sculpture the appearance of a Cubist composition fastidiously rendered ‘in the round’. 

 

The final works, Balzy and Model for Puni’s Tower 1985 (fig. 7) by Victor Meertens are less to do with the assembled metal idiom than with assemblage or the vicarious delights of objet trouve work. However, their skin is corrugated iron sheet and the effect of their daunting and cumbersome presence is largely derived from the quality and nature of this surface. 

The two works were acquired from an installation of eight large-scale works entitled Richmond Labyrinth. Each of these monoliths was constructed of battered industrial materials salvaged by the sculptor in the vicinity of a studio he occupied at the time in the inner Melbourne suburb of Richmond. The most prevalent material was corrugated iron sheet, and no attempt was made to disguise or renew the peeling, faded and flaking paint of these sheets or their nail holes or torn edges. Meertens’s method is to clad and ‘drape’ tall, irregular wood armatures with these sheets to create intriguing ‘patchwork’ surfaces. The colossal scale of the works dwarfs the viewer, who is very probably appalled at the coarse manner of construction. The materials themselves are of a base, non-art kind and, to aggravate further the taste for ‘finished’ art and dignified materials, the sculptor often intersperses his vast expanses of torn and dented iron sheet with scattered passages of fibrous insulating material and tarred paper. Meertens’s forms, themselves, are columnar, blocky and often awkward. Yet, in the face of all this uncompromising rawness, the sculptor has created works which speak with a marvellously clear voice. 

Works such as Model for Puni’s Tower, a patchwork of small, pale green sheets with narrow corrugations, and the imperious and strangely regal form in iron oxide red-brown, entitled Balzy, entirely usurp the rawness of both fabric and construction to achieve an expression of dignity, immense personality and an unnerving melancholy. 

These are only a few of the works from the Gallery’s collection of modern Australian sculpture which suggest the achievements of both established and emerging artists and give some idea of the variety of attitudes which may inform a single sculptural idiom. 

Geoffrey Edwards, Curator of Glass and Sculpture, National Gallery of Victoria (in 1986).

Notes

* Purchased 1956

** Purchased 1966

1          ‘Australian Sculpture No – Second Australian Sculpture Triennial’ was held at the National Gallery of Victoria, 6 November 1984 – 28 January 1985; ‘Ninth Mildura Sculpture Triennial’ was held at the Mildura Arts Centre and its surrounding environment, 6 April – 26 May 1985; ‘Sculpture 85’ was focused at the World Trade Centre, Melbourne, January 1985. 

2          The Centre 5 group comprised the sculptors Julius Kane, Inge King, Clifford Last, Lenton Parr, Vincas Jomantas and Teisutis Zikaras. They held joint exhibitions from 1959. The name of the group derives from the five-point program devised by Kane, which was strongly oriented towards the development of a broader community understanding and awareness of modern Australian sculpture. The group also sought better representation for Australian sculptors in the various state galleries, and endeavoured to encourage the practice of incorporating modern sculpture within prospective architectural projects. An account of Centre 5 activities may be found in Graeme Sturgeon, The Development of Australian Sculpture 1788–1975, London, 1978, and Ken Scarlett, Australian Sculptors, Melbourne, 1980. 

3          Colin Lanceley’s The King in his counting house 1964–65, purchased by the National Gallery of Victoria in 1976, is one such work utilising found objects, such as industrial wooden patterns. 

4          Extract from a letter from Clifford Last to the author, 28 March 1985. 

5          ibid. 

6          A small bronze panel, Magician, purchased 1961; a maquette (steel) for an A.M.Ρ sculpture, presented in 1971; untitled maquette (steel, aluminium), purchased 1981. 

7          Extract from the artist’s statement in the catalogue to the exhibition, ‘Lenton Parr Sculpture’, held at the National Gallery of Victoria, 27 October 1984 – 17 February 1985.