Sculpture with a light touch: British work 1977-1986 in MAKING IT at the Mead Gallery

By Mark Sheerin | 12 October 2015

Mark Sheerin on MAKING IT: Sculpture in Britain: 1977-1986, Mead Gallery, Warwick Arts Centre,

Cartoonish sculpture of a set of tools embedded in a wooden frame
Julian Opie, Making It (1983)© Courtesy Mead Gallery
On the evidence of this touring survey from the Arts Council Collection, the best thing to have happened to British sculpture took place in the 1980s; this is when our homegrown art caught up with our famed sense of humour.

If one piece here represents a precise moment, it would be that which lends its title to the show: Making It, by Julian Opie. The London artist has created a two-metre wooden assemblage under attack from giant tools. Of course, neither the wood nor the tools are real. Both are painted steel. The effect is gleefully absurd, a brash prefiguring of Brit Art.

It’s a far cry from the old guard who carved in stone and earnestly loved their materials. Pieces here in carrara marble (Pater Randall-Page), Portland stone (Stephen Cox) and Purbeck stone (Paul de Monchaux) are beleaguered by the advent of colour reproduction and the cynicism of the 1980s. But these artists appear happy to remain in the slow lane; Randall-Page has even made a piece about a gastropod.

Row of sphrerical sculptures in black and deep blue
Anish Kapoor, The Chant of the Blue (1983)© Courtesy Mead Gallery
Carved stone can be used to frivolous effect, but in the hands of so many British artists it appears to be a fairly serious medium, bearing the scars of the hammers and chisels that brought these pieces to fruition. Those years covered by this show provide a showcase for those who resisted the proliferation of new materials and possiblities and those who embraced all that.

Of course, two of the biggest players in British art are also two of our most apparently sincere. They are Antony Gormley and Anish Kapoor. Curators Nathalie Rudd and Jon Wood have chosen two of the most representative pieces by these artists: a de-personalised grey figure and a row of boulders dusted with blue pigment.

Arrangement of found plastic debris on a floor in a spectrum of colours
Tony Cragg, New Stones, Newton's Tones (1978)© courtesy Mead Gallery
It would have been perverse not to look at what Gormley and Kapoor were up to during the early 80s. To leave them out of this survey, as did the RA in their 2011 show Modern British Sculpture, would have amounted to a cultural boycott. And, indeed, their respective hallmarks (atomised human figures and deep, opulent colour) were once as challenging as they now appear staid.

At the very least they lack the humour with which the YBAs transformed art in the UK in the 1990s. There are many artists here who, by contrast, raise a smile.

Richard Wentworth has set a half-open sardine can into a tub brimming with steel. Carl Plackman shows a gift for amusing titles with his mixed media installation, Any Place to Hang your Hat: Wedlock. And the scene created by Bill Woodrow is anything but classical as a floppy cloth panther attacks a New York cab.

Sculpture of a figure poised on a diving board
Antony Gormley, Untitled (Diving Figure) (1983)© Coutesy Mead Gallery
In a very literal sense, the most lightfooted piece on display is by Shelagh Wakely. Her pair of sandals appear breathed into life rather than worked at, since they exist only in outline, thanks to a delicate arrangement of brass wire. As such, they perform the double trick of looking highly skilled and yet at the same time effortless. They are reassuringly clever and pleasingly evocative.

By no means as elegant, but possessing equal wit, is Mont Ste. Victoire by Kate Blacker. The title is, of course, from Cezanne, the image too is from Cezanne, but the much-painted scene has been daubed across planes of corrugated metal and a tree branch leans into the drama from the foreground. Just as the French painter did more than most to capture the solidity of three dimensional forms, so Blacker, and indeed Opie, have come the other way and played sculpture off against painting.

If your interests lie in the narrow field of late 20th century British art history you will be in clover at this show. But the presentation isn’t as academic as that sounds and MAKING IT should be enjoyed by anyone who can admire interesting three-dimensional forms, although a sense of humour will be an advantage here.

  • Runs until November 19 2015. Open 12pm-9pm (closed Sunday). Admission free.

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