It may be time to take another look at modern sculpture. Much of the time I find it difficult to summon an emotional or rational res-ponse to what I see. Much of what I do see in public spaces can be described as forms made out of polished metal, circles, spheres, cones and angles that are mixed together and which to my eye are utterly devoid of meaning. While some may find great pleasure in contemplating these constructions I’m afraid my brain must be very small because they do nothing for me except to make me long for Fernando Botero or David Altjmed.
There is also disturbing evidence in public spaces of a school devoted almost entirely to amorphous shapes cast from concrete. Both metal and concrete are construction materials and used extensively in modern residential and commercial buildings.
Following this train of thought leads you to ask the question, does steel and concrete sculpture in some ways worship technology or does it perhaps provide the viewer with some form of blank slate that allows the viewer “me time” with their unconsciousness. As it allows them to reflect on whatever theme the artist has said the work embodies becoming a sort of didactic meditation if you will. If you look at sculpture in its heyday, which is without doubt the Italian Renaissance, and you compare it to what is commonly commissioned as modern public sculpture in any big city, there is no doubt about which era wins hands down.
One would like to ascribe the profound aesthetic depths and beauty revealed in re-naissance sculpture to a sense of vision that no longer seems to apply in this postmodern universe. That vision is of course one which could be briefly described as humanistic and religious. Rodin, may be the mightiest advocate of this school in more or less modern times. The representational sculpture to which I am referring to usual-ly dwells on both the divine and the sublime and the divine in hu-man nature. It carries with it an implicit moral message. It also looks outward speaking to everyone in the same language.
Most modern sculpture doesn’t evoke a common response. Instead it is more like a take what you want buffet at a fixed price restaurant. It is highly individualistic in that it is based on the supposition that the viewer will see what he wants to see in it and all interpretations are just. A bright shiny circle of thin metal called “Energy” or “Hope” or “Freedom” is somehow supposed to uplift our spirits with joy. A dense mass of concrete may actually force ourselves to be creative as it draws us into wondering what it is supposed to be? What message is it supposed to carry? The point here is that traditional representational sculpture by its very nature allows us to contemplate an ideal shared in com-mon with the rest of humanity while modern sculpture draws you in to an individual reflective state which may or may not result in some form of beneficial meditation. The difference between looking inward to find reward in a piece of art and finding a common humanity reflected in represen-tational sculpture is vast and you can make any number of wild leaps if you accept this. Without thinking too much this could include modern art as a belief substitute for religion or modern art as a reflection of the rise of anarchic individualism.
If you find modern sculpture lacking in humanity because it is based on interpretive theories about the consciousness, unconsciousness and id, dreams and nightmares, the question be-comes where does sculpture go from here and that might lie in the hands of artists like David Altjmed and Damien Hirst. Altmejd is a Canadian sculptor living in New York City who represented Canada at the 2007 Venice Biennale. Chameleon-like might be one way of describing Altmejd’s work which is highly de-tailed and highly composed and usually very large installation pieces in glass cases. His figures are both abstract and representa-tional and he explores both interior and exterior worlds, surface and structure. In the contemporary art world he has almost patented the use of werewolf heads. His work is very complex as he creates structural systems that are loaded with what he terms “symbolic potential,” and he enegages the viewer in an open ended narrative.
Because of the detail he puts into his work and the way he composes it the end result is fascinating. He has vision. In some ways his work combines the best of both traditional and modern sculpture. There is narrative and there is abstraction. Much the same can be said of British artist Damien Hirst, who like the Italian greats during the renaissance, also employs assis-tants to work on various aspects of his production. Hirst has spent much of the last decade working on what can only be described as an extravaganza that now occupies two museums in Venice and will for the next year or so.
Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable, operates on the conceit that the works on display were discovered in a 2000 year old wreck that Hirst discovered on the floor of the Indian Ocean and raised at his own expense. According to a review published in The Guardian on April 16, 2017 by Laura Cumming, the show is: “by turns marvellous and beautiful, prodigious, comic and monstrous.” Hirst has filled his extravaganza with hundreds of pieces made from marble, gold, bronze, crystal, jade and malachite. Throughout the show are references to his past work and other artists work which raise questions about reality and myth and the worth of an art work. So after all this why does work in the vein of Hirst and Altmejd appear to be carving a new way forward for modern sculpture.
It may just very well be because they combine the best of both tradi-tional and post modern sculpture. The viewer can find both a narra-tive path that is representational and an intellectual one that more or less can be stated as solving a puzzle—what does it really mean—as well as a meditative one brought by the abstract elements or ideas that both Hirst and Altmejd summon forth in their work.