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Shaping the future: until relatively recently, women were better known as the subjects of sculpture than for creating it. But the likes of Eva Hesse and Louise Bourgeois blazed a trail for a new generation whose work is increasingly being celebrated in exhibitions and public commissions.

The art critic Jonathan Jones recently pronounced the sculptor Rachel Whiteread (b. 1963) to be 'Britain's greatest living artist'. For all that such proclamations might appear reductive, Jones's decision to declare his allegiance to this most atypical of the Young British Artists is symptomatic of the overdue critical recognition being afforded to contemporary female sculptors.

This increased attention to sculpture made by women is apparent throughout the art world. In terms of national heritage, the opening of the Hepworth Wakefield in 2012 has helped to reinforce Barbara Hepworth's standing in the popular consciousness as the founder, alongside Henry Moore, of modern British sculpture. The emergence of a new generation was evident in 2011, when London's Pangolin Gallery presented its 'Women Make Sculpture' exhibition with the declared intention of 'highlighting the diversity and creativity of women sculptors today'. Thankfully, the standard of work displayed by artists including Alison Wilding, Rose Gibbs and Polly Morgan was comfortably strong enough to transcend that dispiritingly mawkish aspiration, instead demonstrating a depth of talent and vision that bodes well for the future of British sculpture.

Tate Britain has also gauged the recent flourishing of female British sculptors; 'The Space Between', its latest display of contemporary works from Tate's collection, featured pieces by Rebecca Warren, Karla Black, Alice Channer, Sarah Lucas, Lucy Skaer, Claire Barclay, Alison Wilding and Jess Flood-Paddock, all of whom work mainly (if not exclusively) with sculpture and installation. A survey of forthcoming shows suggests the trend is set to continue, with Karla Black exhibiting at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Philadelphia (24 April-28 July), Anne Hardy at Maureen Paley, London (12 April-26 May), Mira Schendel at Tate Modern (26 September-19 January 2014) and Barbara Bloom at the Jewish Museum, New York (15 Match-4 August).

It would be foolish to declare that a group of sculptors constituted a movement because they happened to share the same gender. This article neither does that, nor is it intended as a comprehensive survey. Instead, it suggests that the increasing visibility of women in a branch of the visual arts traditionally dominated by men is a consequence of not only a shift in societal attitudes, but also the growing influence of a number of 20th-century pioneers, chiefly Louise Bourgeois (1911-2010) and Eva Hesse (1936-70). Their greatest work manifests many of the thematic and methodological threads that now bind a new generation very loosely together.

Louise Bourgeois is now widely acknowledged as a genius. But it is often forgotten that during the 1950s and 1960s she was a peripheral figure, more familiar to the New York art world as the wife of the influential American art historian Robert Goldwater than for her own, infrequently exhibited, work. Her station, both inside and outside the art historical trends that came and went during her long lifetime, is in some respects typical of the marginal position occupied by many women artists in the decades after the Second World War.

Influenced by, but never reducible to, movements including Surrealism and Minimalism, Bonrgeois' sculptures are characterised by the ambiguity of their effect upon the viewer. This quality is apparent in Spider IV (1996), one of the highlights of last year's blockbuster 'Bronze' exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts in London. Caught splayed in a corner by an angled spotlight, Bourgeois' oversized insect crept into my consciousness and continued to intrude upon my thoughts until long after my visit. Like the centipede crawling towards the ceiling in Alain Robbe-Grillet's 1957 novel La Jalousie, it seemed designed to tangle the viewer in a web of psychological feedback. The artist herself stated that she adopted the spider as an emblem of, and tribute to, her mother, who was 'deliberate, clever, patient, soothing, reasonable, dainty, subtle, indispensable, neat, and as useful as a spider'. Yet many who have encountered Spider IV or Maman (Fig. 1) the giant bronze arachnid commissioned for Tate Modern's Turbine Hall in 2000, will have drawn their own emotional associations between maternity and the monstrous spiders.

As with the greatest of Bourgeois' works, these sculptures carry significant emotional heft without dictating their audience's reaction (I recall children dancing delightedly around Maman while others recoiled). This commitment to open-endedness is also reflected in the artist's ground-breaking use of non-traditional materials such as latex, wax and felt to make sculptural objects that parade the processes of their creation.

The effect of using unusual materials and found objects, such as the 19th-century sewing machine which provides the mount for a marble carving of her childhood home in Cell (Choisy) of 1990-93, is to present the final work as less the realisation of a single idea than the accumulation of associations, actions and creative decisions. Means are prioritised over ends. This emphasis on process was shared by the comparably influential Eva Hesse, whose astonishing sculptures continue to gain in renown even as the latex, string and plastics from which they are constructed sag, fray and deteriorate.

Hesse shared with Bourgeois a fiercely independent streak, which legislated against her appropriation into the cultural mainstream before her premature death from a brain tumour aged 34. The artist's childhood experience of emigrating to New York to escape the Nazi regime predisposed her against the unthinking adoption of any status quo, whether political or artistic. Yet Hesse's defiant non-conformism was also bolstered by her conviction that women artists were, as she wrote in her diaries, 'at a disadvantage from the beginning'--particularly in a mid-20th-century art world dominated by the machismo of Abstract Expressionism and the austerities of male-dominated Minimalism.

Hesse's work presented an explicit challenge to the received wisdoms of her time: neither entirely abstract nor satisfyingly figurative, its forms seem loosely predicated on organic growth rather than on notions of immaterial beauty or pattern. In its rejection of classical sculptural forms, Hesse's work denies us the satisfaction of easy identification. Her warped, twisted, fetishistic objects do not appear to have been modelled on any recognisable shape or form, but succeed nevertheless in conjuring a sense of the corporeal, even the sexual. Our own associations are, like the work itself, entirely consequent upon our imaginative engagement with the material.

These sculptures grant priority to contingency and ambiguity. Michelangelo famously considered that 'every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it'; Hesse allowed her materials and methods to decide their own ends. This is an art that denies the immutability of form. Her indifference to the notion of permanence is embodied in her work, which is notoriously difficult to conserve. Expanded Expansion (1969; Fig. 2), an increasingly fragile latex screen stretched across fibreglass poles, was the sole subject of an entire panel discussion at a 2008 conservation conference at the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles. 'Life doesn't last; art doesn't last,' Hesse famously declared. 'It doesn't matter.'

Hesse's influence can be perceived in the practice of the Irish artist Eva Rothschild (b. 1972), who incorporates leather, Perspex, wood, tiles and aluminium into her sculptures; in their elegance and simplicity of form, these recall Minimalism, while also communicating a sense of the spiritual that would have been anathema to many of the practitioners of that movement. Her vast Duveens Commission for Tare Britain in 2009--a structure of huge metal triangles that stretched more than 70m through the gallery--exemplified her work's generosity, inviting visitors to move around and through the piece at their own pace and along a route of their own choosing (Fig. 4). A comparison of these open triangular shapes with the monumental sculpture of Richard Serra (b. 1939) is useful, if a little too convenient. Serra's great works loom down upon their audience, browbeating us into submissive awe by virtue of their sheer size and weight; Rothschild's Duveens Commission, while by no means conceived in conscious opposition to Serra and his followers, embodies the trend in monumental sculpture towards a new lightness of form and freedom of movement.

The most extraordfiaary expression of this new monumentalism, which is distinguished by the combination of a large scale with subjects and forms evoking the immaterial, fleeting or fragmentary, is provided by Rachel Whiteread. Her work combines seriousness and simplicity of form in a determined eschewal of grandiosity. Until its scandalous demolition, House (1993; Fig. 3), Whiteread's magnificent cast of the inside spaces of an old Victorian terraced house in East London, was a fossil that preserved all the character of a home that had once been inhabited. It was a monument to the past itself, to loss and empty space--a work created literally ex nihilo.

In 2000, Whiteread's resin sculpture for Trafalgar Square's Fourth Plinth expressed a similar preoccupation with what is lost and unseen; an inverted transparent cast of the actual plinth, this memorialisation of absence and silence stood in pointed and poignant contrast to the royal and military tributes that occupy the other plinths in Britain's most important public space. It is this sensitivity to public acts of contemplation and reflection which made Whiteread such an apt choice when she was commissioned in the late 1990s to design the Judenplatz Holocaust Memorial in Vienna.

The artist shares with several of her peers an attentiveness to the domestic setting, most notably in Ghost, a precursor to House that concretises the interior space of a single room. 'I don't do portraits,' Edouard Vuillard once remarked. 'I paint people in their surroundings.' Whiteread extends the implication that people are defined by their domestic environment to its logical conclusion, effectively painting her subjects out of their surroundings. Much as Vuillard focused his attention on interiors not merely as decorations for his subjects but as expressions of individual and universal human life, so the work of Whiteread and Bourgeois seeks to incarnate our surroundings as expressions of ourselves.

A work in Bourgeois' great Cells series, in which a guillotine blade hangs like the Sword of Damocles above a doll-sized house, calls to mind Whiteread's artistic affinity with domestic spaces. Expanding upon her decision to model the miniature house on her own childhood home, Bourgeois said in an interview with Artforum that 'the house represents the past ... The demolition of the house means that the present destroys the past--cuts it, breaks with it.'

Constructed from a variety of found materials such as mesh and steel frames, old doors and windows, Cells use the architecture of domesticity as a visual expression of memory and loss. Unlike Whiteread's work, though, the poignancy of loss is here superseded by its trauma. Cell III (1991), an impossible confusion of ladders reminiscent of the work of M.C. Escher, hints at a violence lurking in the domestic sphere, also captured by Doris Salcedo's (b. 1958) spectacular installation at the 8th Istanbul Biennial in 2003 (Fig. 6). The Colombian wedged more than 1,500 chairs into the space between two multi-storey buildings, subverting the braggadocio of monumental sculpture and architecture, like so much of Whiteread's work, to create a haunting, teetering installation that gave a shape to absence.

Karla Black (b. 1972) is among an emerging generation who draw on several of the thematic and methodological processes of the artists discussed above. Her large-scale work combines traditional materials and domestic detritus such as lip gloss, cling film, fabric dye and Sellotape. Its determined focus on materials recalls the work of Hesse, as does the tension between its scale and physical fragility. Her installation piece as Scotland's representative at the Venice Biennale in 2011 --consisting of piles of pastel-coloured powders and translucent sugar paper sculptures--married impressive bulk to the inescapable impression it might blow away at any moment (Fig. 5). Rachel Harrison (b. 1966) also mixes materials and appropriates a range of styles without ever seeming to belong to a movement; witty and subversive, her comprehension of the multiplicity of meanings that can be attached to symbols and metaphors may be understood as an extension of Bourgeois' open-ended symbolism.

Then there are those female sculptors who have worked to renovate the figurative tradition in Britain, including the quietly revolutionary Elisabeth Frink (1930-93), the American Helaine Blumenfeld (b. 1942)--subject of a solo show at Salisbury Cathedral this year (12 April-8 September) and the heir apparent to Moore and Hepworth--and Rebecca Warren (b. 1965), whose startling interpretations of the female nude have established her as one of the most exciting sculptors in this country today. These artists and their more radical peers all pursue different artistic aims by different means. Bur all, to varying extents, occupy a space that their 20th-century predecessors helped to clear. Writing about a retrospective of Hesse's sculptures at the Jewish Museum of New York in 2006, Arthur C. Danto described her as 'reinventing sculpture through aesthetic insubordination'. It is a description that can be collectively applied to those female sculptors still seeking to transform the materials and subject matter of their medium.

Benjamin Eastham is a freelance arts writer and co-editor of The White Review.
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Author:Eastham, Benjamin
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Feb 1, 2013
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