Sculpture helps to understand the human condition

Two important exhibitions of sculpture opened in London this month in the major contemporary art galleries White Cube and Gagosian.

They were of the works by two famous artists, Antony Gormley and Cy Twombly, the artists so different and similar at the same time.

British Antony Gormley (born 1950) presented two series of human figures, ‘Stacks’ and ‘Aggregates’, at the White Cube; the Royal Academy of Art also holds a big show of his recent works. The large column-like figures of ‘Stacks’ are made out of loose solid cast iron blocks that are propped and stacked on top of each other and leaned on the walls for support and reinforcement; each weigh 12 tonnes and priced at £550K.

The ‘Aggregates’ are the reference to Michelangelo’s ‘Slaves’ where bodies emerge out of marble blocks. Gormley 3D-scanned his body in various poses and cast the digital files of the scans in solid rusted iron as heavily pixelated figures to speak of the transition of “the information into form and form into information”. 

Gagosian Gallery shows the works by American Cy Twombly (1928-2011) who started his career when Gormley was born. Made out of found materials such as plaster, wood, packaging and iron as well as objects that he habitually handled in the studio, the Twombly’s works reflect his unique – and at time hard to discern - artistic language: a meta-script of abbreviated signs, hatchings, loops and numbers each infused with energy, spirituality and meaning. Many of his sculptures Twombly coated in white paint and plaster to unify the assembled materials and render the newly formed object into a coherent whole. ‘White paint is my marble,’ he used to say referring to the tradition of white marble carvings. Working in the style of abstract expressionism, “Cy gave to abstract expressionism its humanity back”, a curator at Gagosian Gallery explains to me. While maintaining an abstract charge, Twombly directed his focus toward poetic traditions, engaging narratives from antiquity and featuring writing, landscapes and natural forms. 

The works of both artists are poignant and thought-provoking. Practicing different visual languages, Gormley figurative and controlled and Twombly anti-figurative and spontaneous aesthetics, they both explore the essence of human existence. Speaking of birth, growth, emotionality, aspiration, conflict and mortality, they make us pose the question: ‘What it is to be human at a time of change and what is the new way of becoming in the changing world?’ Each of the artists in his unique way mediates on the state, passage and direction of the human experience, on where we are and where we are heading. Both artists exhibit a blend of emotional expansiveness and intellectual sophistication while illuminating the complexity of the human condition. They make us examine our strengths and limitations and the effect we have on the world. They do not treat humans as objects or even objects as objects, in its isolated state, and want us to do the same. Gormley and Twombly accomplish the most extraordinary thing: moving away from sculpture as representation, they have created a new sculpture - our relationship and involvement with their works. Abstracted to the very limits of recognition, their works retain a sense of life, individual awareness and the ideas that demand our thought and feeling. 

Alla Tkachuk, [email protected]