Eileen McHugh - a life remade

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Sculptures

Sculptures

Again, I presume this was an introductory exercise. It was handwritten on lined paper, and later folded and taped into a small sketchbook with other material.

Describe sculptures from the twentieth century, saying what you think they communicate and how they might influence your own work. Choose five to ten examples.

Picasso Bull’s Head

It is two found objects. Picasso has assembled them, remade them in a way they would not otherwise be seen. It’s a bicycle seat and a set of handlebars. Now every bicycle I see has a seat and a set of handlebars. Both things are used by a rider of a bicycle for their functions, so they are usually experienced via their uses and not their appearance. You can’t have a bicycle without them. But when a rider gets on a bike, he probably does not think ‘bull’. But after seeing Bull’s Head, it becomes impossible not to see the bull in the bike. Merely by placing these two objects in space and giving them a title, Picasso has changed forever how we see them. For me, there is also another dimension. Someone owned the bicycle. Different people have probably sat on the seat and held the handlebars. They have ridden it to different places at different times, when different things have been happening along the way. The journeys were probably made for different reasons. When Picasso places these objects side by side, he changes the way we see them. But what might we see if the people who used them, alongside the events witnessed and the places visited could also be evoked? If I made Bull’s Head, I would want to tell these stories.

Brancusi Bird in Space

This is about as far from a found object as possible. The artist has clearly designed, planned and sketched. He has made a model. He has had it cast in bronze like a solidified idea. But the idea was far from complete, because he has spent a lot of time and energy finishing it, polishing the surface so it shines, probably just like Michelangelo did with marble. The surface is so perfect it seems not to have a single blemish and no texture. As an object it does not fit with my approach. Its shape is very beautiful, but it has none of the rawness of being used and none of the immediacy of being found. But two things attract me to this work. First it reflects the world around it. A viewer sees a distorted image of their own world, reflected in its surface. The second reason is the story that surrounds it. I have read that when Brancusi had it shipped to New York for an exhibition, the customs officials did not believe it was art. As a work of art, it attracted no import duty. If it was not art, then a tax had to be paid. The level of the duty was fixed by how they classified the object. They wanted to classify it as Kitchen Utensil or Hospital Supplies. An expert was called in to give an opinion and this art ‘expert’ said if this was art then he was a bricklayer. A few years later people were laying bricks as art anyway. Bird in Space is like my work in reverse. What I want to do is assemble unfinished, damaged or discarded objects to suggest a story which will lead a viewer to a special, unique, singular experience. With the Brancusi, you have a perfectly finished object that, for some special people called Customs Officials, is seen as a kitchen utensil or hospital equipment, almost the complete opposite of what I am trying to do. I would like to experiment with an arrangement of pans, spatulas, graters, syringes, sick bowls and scalpels stuck together called Bird in Space or Brancusi.

Picasso Woman Reading

This is not really what I want to find in sculpture. I find it too literal. The title is Woman Reading and what we see is a woman, who happens to be reading. It seems at first sight that there is no space for the imagination. Anyone who wants not to challenge, to disturb - to be memorable, even - might see this, walk past and say, ‘That’s a woman reading’. An object becomes art only when some aspect of imagination is provoked. If I see a shelf of books and say, “Books”, they are not sculptures. If the same shelf of books is made from marble, they are not books at all. Then they can be art. It is similar to Magritte’s painting of a pipe called, “This is not a pipe”. But what makes this Woman Reading by Picasso a sculpture is that it is not literal at all, because if it was literal, it should be called old bits of wood, nails, screws and a bit of paint. Now the last word is important. We are not used to seeing sculptures in colour. I have read that ancient Greek and Roman statues were originally painted. And yet, in museums, art books and in people’s assumptions, these works are always shown monochrome, or whatever colour is the material they are made from. Because the colour has fallen off and because we all learn that these are great works from history, we then assume that all new sculpture should follow this model and not be coloured. So, what we see are finished surfaces, polished, white, black or brown. But the originals were painted in bright colours and we have no real ideas what colours they used, so we do not know whether they always tried to achieve realism. How would our experience be changed, for instance, if Michelangelo’s David were painted in blotches, or had a red face, blue legs, black arms, yellow body and a crimson fig-leaf? And where did the fig leaf come from anyway? Did Michelangelo find it in his garage like Picasso did his bits of wood? Woman Reading prompts me to discover literal images in unexpected collections of objects, and then use colour to challenge the viewers’ assumptions, and then create works such as a Black Orange, a Purple Lemon, or a golf course with red greens.

Moore Reclining Figure

Henry Moore did lots of these reclining figures. As time went by, he moved away from the need to represent the figure literally. In the earlier works, you can see how the blocks of the human form were beginning to dominate his thinking and how the detail of the figure was gradually disappearing. It is as if he has reduced the figure to its elemental, essential components. He then asks the viewer to recreate the form by imagination, based on these abstract shapes. They remind me of prehistoric cave painting, where the artist who drew pictures of animals or humans used just a few short strokes, or a patch of colour, but did not try to represent any detail whatsoever. What is amazing is that these reduced marks convey perfectly what is being communicated. You receive by virtue of imagination a perfect communication of the object, itself, even the movement of the figure. There is no movement in Moore. His sculptures are statuesque, giving an impression that they never moved, that they were always part of a landscape and remain connected to it. And yet, by the time we look at the later works, the blocks from which he is creating these impressions actually do not seem in any way to resemble the objects that they are representing. I want to achieve the same kind of essence of shape and form in my work, but I want my sculptures also to be dynamic, never static and changeable. One last thing about the Moore is that there is a small one in the art gallery of my home town, Wakefield. It was donated by the artist because he was from down the road in Castleford. Visitors to the gallery use it as an ashtray. So, I want to make an essential reclining figure out of ashtrays.

Boccioni Development of a Bottle

It’s a bottle. But it’s not a bottle. Bottles hold things. They enclose. They can have stoppers. Bottles can enclose space. But this bottle can hold nothing but space. It’s opened up, like it’s made of plastic and has been slashed into shreds. But it’s made from bronze and could not be cut. What I find interesting about this piece is the idea of development. It’s not the bottle that’s developing, but the idea of a bottle that is being transformed in the viewer. The term ‘opening up’ is one I like to use when I look at this work. It is a bottle that is opening up to the viewer and therefore inviting the onlooker to open up in response. It’s a message I would like all art to convey, because unless we open up to what a work is saying, then it can never say anything, apart from a literal message which will not be interesting. It is always easier to dismiss something than spend time analysing what our responses to it might be. And this is especially easy when something challenges the viewer to see it in an unfamiliar way. I want my works to open up the history of the objects in the mind of the viewer.

Giacometti Man Pointing

The form is immediately recognisable, but the detail is not. In some ways, it’s like a child’s drawing of a stick man, but this man is not made of sticks, lines, nor anything straight. It seems to be something familiar and easy to understand, but if we look at this work, we find it is a complex and emotional story. When you walk around a Giacometti, the object changes out of all recognition. From one side it looks like a conventional image of a human being. But from another angle, the object is thin, so thin it could be abstract objects joined for no reason other than to make a pattern. I’ve seen some of his work in the Tate and you really can spend a long time looking at them, seeing new objects all the time. Close up, there is yet another and different experience. You realise that the human figure has nothing to do with anatomy. Each piece is complicated. The shapes seem to have been gouged out with the artist’s own fingers. Each little piece could be a sculpture in its own right. The figure, itself, is so slender it might break. We know it’s made of bronze and is probably heavy as well as sturdy, but the limbs look vulnerable, almost ready to break. In my work, I want to achieve something similar, in that I want to use recognisable images that the viewer can immediately identify with, but which then seem to get more complicated when they are studied.

Gabo Spheric Theme

The work itself leaves me cold. I find it strangely predictable. It is abstract. It is quite unlike any natural or everyday object. But it appears to me to represent a logical process, something completely planned and thought out, rather than poetic, or inspired, or imagined. It should therefore be the exact opposite of what I think is important in sculpture, which is spontaneity and familiarity mixed with challenge and variability. But there is one aspect of this work that I find not just interesting, but fascinating, and something that is fundamental to what I want to achieve. Gabo said that he was creating an object that would exist as itself, not as a representation of something, not even an interpretation of something. It just is. Once it is made, it exists. It is itself. It is in our world. Our world is then changed by it. It needs no other justification. Once created, it also becomes the property of those who experience it and they can make of it whatever they wish. Some people might ignore it. Some people might study it. Some people will feel it. But everyone’s life has been changed because it exists. The real importance of this work for me is the complete contrast it makes with my own assumptions about what an object must be, but also how it is totally in line with my ideas of what the object should become. Yes, I want to create works that can be viewed independently and in their own right, but I also want them to have the ability to change. I will create a physical object, but I will arrange it so that the physical as well as the mental experience of repeated viewing is different each time.

Caro Reel

Like the Giacometti, Caro’s Reel might just be a literal object. It is a tube, unwound from which is a length of tape that has become folded and creased in the process. It looks like you could spin the tube and wind the tape back onto it. But the tape itself has creased. It would never go back into the shape it was before it was unwound. And that’s the end of the literal experience. In fact, everything is made of steel and it weighs a ton. Everything is also fixed. Nothing moves. Nothing can move. The creased tape is a steel plate. And everything is red. It’s also about twenty times bigger than it should be if we had wanted to pick it up and rewind it. So, Caro’s Reel is an absurd object, apparently just a tube and a tape, unwound and discarded. But it has become fixed in space and time and because it’s steel it’s none of the things we thought it was. Again, it takes time to view an object like this if it is to communicate. Reel cannot be changed by its viewers, but it does have the feel of discarded objects, despite the fact that these things have been made to fit an idea first and a space second.

Smith Cubi XVIII

It looks like a jumble of shapes. It looks like they might have been thrown together and that they might just have landed like that. But, of course, that is absurd. They are balanced in such a way that they appear ready to fall, so there is a sense of movement about the work. But overall, it conveys a heaviness, a mass and, because of that, it looks contrived. He has chosen shapes that are ideals, pure geometric shapes that could not exist in everyday objects. These cubes and boxes are made of polished steel. With these highly ordered shapes he has created the contrast of something disorderly. It looks like it might just be a passing phase, a frozen moment in the existence of these shapes. But we know it is far from that. These objects are welded together permanently and are forever connected in this form, until they rust and fall apart. I think the random appearance is a success, but if this were my work then I would want people to be able to move it, take it apart and reassemble it. So, it couldn’t be made of something as heavy or as permanent as steel.

Eileen’s comments were more than minimal, but they clearly did not represent either thorough analysis or criticism. She has clearly described the works, but she has not tried to research their context. But then this was an assignment primarily aimed at how she imagined her choices might influence her own work. The teacher’s comment was not extensive.

An interesting list. It would help, next time, if you used more than one book. J.D.

Eileen had written something beneath this, but it was repeatedly scribbled over in ball point, so it was illegible.

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