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A Twilight Zone of the Human Psyche

Mark Hudson considers the sculpture of Tim Shaw, and examines its influences.



Tim Shaw has been described as belonging to a tradition of Modern British Sculpture exemplified by Epstein and Moore, and he has been related particularly to the so-called Geometry of Fear Sculptors (Lynn Chadwick, Kenneth Armitage and Reg Butler), perhaps because of a tendency towards a certain romantic, implicitly political narrativity that sits awkwardly beside the prevailing formalism of twentieth- and twenty-first century art. Yet where Chadwick and Co.’s spiky, haggard, zoomorphic forms relate to very British landscape and nature traditions (manifest in Ted Hughes’s poetry as much as Moore’s sculpture), Shaw identifies with European modernist sculptural traditions in which a classically derived concentration on the human figure predominates.

Shaw’s first conscious influence as an artist was Rodin, proverbially the first great modern sculptor, who liberated form from neoclassical stiffness and sterility, imbuing his surfaces with an impressionistic vigour and heat. Yet that isn’t the aspect of Rodin that connects most interestingly with Shaw’s work. Shaw’s first major opus, Middle World, which occupied him for a full five years, draws immediate comparison with Rodin’s Gates of Hell, not so much in its form as its all-encompassing symbolic ambition. Where Rodin’s
structure was essentially classical, Shaw’s piece includes a gothic portal that is some 5 ft high, but has an almost monstrous sense of scale, a kind of fin de siècle ominousness that looks forward to the nightmarish mood of Casting a Dark Democracy. Modern technological objects – an electric chair, satellite dish, bombs and engine parts – cascade around a tormented crucifixion surmounted by an angel which is tiny in actuality, but appears immense in its sculptural context.

Intended to embody what Shaw calls a ‘twilight zone of the human psyche’ – between past and present, light and darkness – the cast concrete work extends from the façade towards the viewer in a kind of eyelevel tabletop, beneath which stalactite-like projections bring to mind Gaudí’s Sagrada Familia. The upper surface functions as a kind of piazza in front of the façade, peopled with tiny bronze figures invoking figures from Egyptian and Norse mythology, and from Shaw’s own past and imagination. The sun and moon refer back to his childhood in Belfast, where his father, a linen merchant, took him to the masonic lodge, where such imagery was pervasive.

The work by Rodin that first caught Shaw’s imagination and which remains a powerful reference is The Burghers of Calais, the French sculptor’s great narrative magnum opus, which in many ways represents what is least fashionable about Rodin today. When Shaw was making his monumental sculpture The Drummer for Truro city centre, he went to look at The Burghers for the first time in many years, and was surprised by the looseness and rawness of the treatment: ‘I had thought it was formally a lot tighter than it actually is; the handling of the clay is quite Baconesque, a twisting in the way that it’s pushed.’

That’s the aspect of Rodin that speaks to us today – the formal innovator. But there’s another aspect which is less fashionable, but equally meaningful for Shaw: the symbolist and theatrical storyteller who cast real people in the roles of fourteenth-century townsmen, putting them into expressive postures and, in some cases, greatly enlarging their hands and feet in the interests of emotional impact. While Shaw balks at the notion of theatricality in relation to his work, feeling it may diminish his work as sculpture, his mis en scènes follow Rodin’s dramatic example in ways that are direct, yet sometimes surprising. The Burghers of Calais is, in one respect, a precursor of installation art in that it was intended to be shown, unprecedentedly, at ground level, so that viewers would engage with the work in a new way: ‘almost bumping into’ the figures, as Rodin put it, as they went about their daily affairs. The matter of how the figures should be arranged was a matter of considerable doubt for Rodin, and in the version at Stanford University the figures are positioned some distance from each other so that the viewer can walk among them in a way that directly parallels the way the viewer engages with Shaw’s installation Soul Snatcher Possession.

In addition to Rodin, Shaw looked at the sculptor’s pupils, Antoine Bourdelle and Charles Despiau, who evolved divergent neoclassical responses to Rodin’s aesthetic. He then ‘worked his way’, via the Italian Post-Impressionist sculptor Medardo Rosso, to the next generation of the Rodin legacy, represented by Alberto Giacometti and Germaine Richier, both of whom had studied under Bourdelle. Shaw sees himself as part of a lineage extending from Rodin to Bourdelle to Richier to himself. Indeed, Shaw’s work appears to have less in common with Giacometti’s reduction towards essential form than Richier’s evolution of a primal post-holocaust symbolism. If her blasted bronzes – that appear at once damaged, abject and heroic – are seen as redolent of the angst of the post-war period and the influence of Existentialism, they also reinterpret classical and folk traditions in works such as Tauromachy, with its echoes of the Minotaur legend (a subject Shaw has broached on a number of occasions), and Shepherd of the Landes in the Tate collection, in which the devastated figure, formed partly from pieces of found building rubble, sits atop a kind of tripod, recalling the observation stilts used by shepherds in south-west France. These unabashed narrative elements (again, the aspect that the ‘contem-porary’ eye finds most difficult to deal with), which Shaw encountered during his student years in the mid to late eighties, coincided with his burgeoning interest in the art of Classical Greece and the Middle Ages, eras when painting and sculpture had a ‘directness’ and drew on a shared body of imagery ‘addressing the great themes of existence’. British sculpture was dominated during Shaw’s student years by New British Sculpture, typified by Anish Kapoor, Tony Cragg and Bill Woodrow. But their cool fabrication games didn’t satisfy Shaw’s appetite for ‘something that was formal and twisted, deep, powerful and really overwhelming’.

A contemporary British sculptor who did provide that was the maverick monumentalist Michael Sandle, whose A Twentieth-Century Memorial – a large, floor-based work in polished bronze featuring a skeletal mouse firing a life-sized machine gun – expressed a highly personal, avowedly awkward vision, with which Shaw immediately identified. If the work’s allusion to Mickey Mouse aligned it to Pop Art, the work – originally inspired by the Vietnam War – eschewed Pop’s flip, apolitical cool in favour of a more full-frontal, yet brutally comic, engagement with the forces it lampooned.

While Sandle was rooted, like Shaw, in heavy metal bronze casting, the French artists Christian Boltanski and Annette Messager opened Shaw’s mind to softer and more transient materials. Boltanski’s Resource (1989), which used worn clothing in a memorial to the concentration camps, drew Shaw’s attention to the way clothing denotes the absence of the person who wore it and ‘the time they existed in’, while Messager’s inflating and deflating installations featuring parachute material emphasised the way materials change their form in varying atmospheric conditions. Fugitive effects of materials seen in the surrounding landscape became suggestive for Shaw: an old jumper caught on a tree, seen from the corner of the eye at dusk, could become quite intimidating. ‘The mind fills in the rest of the form,’ says Shaw, ‘and that is not a pleasant experience.’ Black baling plastic, a feature of the surrounding agricultural landscape, caught in tatters on barbed wire, became a material to be worked with, notably in the streaming mass of the Man on Fire, and in the dully gleaming raiment of the figure in Casting a Dark Democracy.

In Soul Snatcher Possession, Shaw was inspired by a violent incident that he overheard one night while working at The Kenneth Armitage Foundation in London. Its slightly over life-size figures are formed from old clothes – bits of old denim, sportswear, stockings, a prosthetic arm – stretched over metal armatures, compounding a feeling of ephemerality, the sense that these threatening forms could be bundled together in just about any permutation, that the remnants they are formed from could be anybody’s old clothes – not least the viewer’s. Which brings us to perhaps the most surprising of Shaw’s influences, which he came to only in his late thirties: rave music. There’s something sculptural about the whole phenomenon of the rave: the physicality of the rhythms and massive volume, the orientation of the participants to the enormous speakers. But beyond that, and more significant for Shaw, is the immersion of the participants in a simultaneous exaltation and oblivion, a collective Dionysian rite that relates in a literal sense to Shaw’s sculpted copper group The Rites of Dionysus at the Eden Project, but also to a deeper sense of ritual felt throughout his work, from Middle World to Soul Snatcher Possession, and in the African and medieval art that he loves, where the viewer doesn’t stand back from the work, but becomes one with it in a relationship that is hypnotic, devotional, non-rational.

Shaw’s sensibility and personality were described recently by a friend as ‘pre-modern’, a notion that intrigued him. He is the same age as the so-called YBA artists. He feels no antipathy towards them; indeed he might be said to have something in common with Damien Hirst in his pursuit of big, primal themes. But, unlike theirs, his work is not framed – implicitly or explicitly – by the marketing process; it isn’t amused by itself. It doesn’t seek legitimacy from academic coteries or theoretical schools. As Robert Hughes wrote of Anselm Kiefer, Shaw’s work ‘sets itself against the sterile irony and sense of trivial pursuit that infect our culture’. Following his intuition as he strives beyond the social and political to things that are, as he says, ‘deeper and more universal’, Shaw is a free agent.




Tim Shaw's new monograph is published by Sansom and co: