Wolfgang Laib, Untitled (triangle), 2019. White basmati rice, red Indian granite, black Indian granite, and white ashes, installation view. Photo: Lewis Ronald

Yorkshire Sculpture International: Jimmie Durham, Tau Lewis, Wolfgang Laib, and Nairy Baghramian

Wakefield, U.K.

The Hepworth Wakefield

By lucky happenstance two of Britain’s foremost 20th-century sculptors, Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore, were born a mere six miles from each other, in West Yorkshire’s Castleford and Wakefield, and only five years apart, in 1898 and 1903 respectively. Over a century later, this chance coincidence continues to be mined by the regional and national cultural industries. Yorkshire Sculpture Park, which opened in 1977 and is a half-dozen miles from Wakefield, was by the turn of the millennium on its way to becoming Britain’s largest sculpture park; less than 20 years later, nearly 500,000 people visit annually. In 2011, a new museum, The Hepworth, opened in Wakefield, while in nearby Leeds, the region’s dominant city, both the Henry Moore Institute and the Leeds Art Gallery have received significant funding for major refit overhauls. Together, these three points on the cultural map have become known as the Yorkshire Sculpture Triangle.

This past summer, Yorkshire Sculpture International, an arts festival linking these major cultural nodes and other smaller venues, was launched with the aim of becoming an established biennial. Phyllida Barlow provided a quotable sentence—“Sculpture is the most anthropological of art forms”—as its putative starting point. This was the backdrop for a recent four-part Hepworth Wakefield exhibition featuring U.S.-born Jimmie Durham, Canadian-Jamaican Tau Lewis, German Wolfgang Laib, and Iranian Nairy Baghramian. Both the press releases and curator Andrew Bonacina’s quoted statements gave considerable airing to Barlow’s assessment of sculpture while offering an accessible and related organizational motif, “truth to materials,” to link these new commissions and U.K. debuts. What also came across was how cohesively these four sculptors reinforce and complement current cultural trends, at both the popular and the aesthetic level. Just as the strikingly contrasting work of the two older artists, Durham and Laib, speaks to environmentally hued and “nature-led” materiality (wood and rice respectively), the upcycled textile pieces of the youngest, emerging artist Tau Lewis, resonate with the maker zeitgeist. Baghramian’s more formal, abstracted pieces, made from raw aluminum and colored wax, are closest to what feels almost conventional, laced with theoretical and international artspeak signifiers.

Visitors encountered Durham’s work in the first-floor gallery. Chunks of a raw, petrified tree root system enmeshed in its trunk and a finer-grained olive tree segment, complete with hollowed-out hole, sat on a plinth alongside single Moore and Hepworth pieces, inviting comparison between the generations. Durham’s work exudes light-heartedness and spontaneity. After discovering the twisted plank of Homage to Luciano Fabro (2009) in a Brazilian flea market, he compared the experience to “finding a giant diamond,” which both underlines his tree-hugger credentials and situates him light years from Moore and Hepworth’s high art seriousness. Such playfulness in mingling materials and experience is underlined by his titles—It should work (2012), Someone Stole my Diamond (1998)—as much as by the informality of his approach to materials. The forest and Brancusi (2012), a miniature tower consisting of three painted wood chunks balanced on a table-like plinth, also feels like a challenge to the Modernist century. Sitting alongside the shiningly smooth surfaces of Moore’s Reclining Figure (1936) and Hepworth’s Torso (1932), Durham’s rough-cut assemblages of found objects appeared strikingly distant in mindset and worldview.

Installed across the floor of the second gallery, Laib’s rice grid installation had a different kind of aura, which slowed the speeding mind. Small, mountain-like mounds of white Basmati rice provided a geometric counterpoint to the white cube walls and ceiling, giving a mesmeric “art and illusion” quality. The repetitive pattern of the grid recalled the austere mathematical vocabularies of Sol LeWitt and Carl Andre, but Laib’s Minimalism is softer, turning toward organic materials—pollen, wax, and rice—and containing an Eastern-oriented mysticism that might be confused with New Age beliefs, a description from which he recoils. For Laib, the rice grain is the essence and beginning of life, symbolic of both timelessness and ephemerality. Though well known in Germany and the subject of several U.S. showcases, this Hepworth installation marked one of his few major shows in Britain.

This was the first time that Lewis’s work has appeared outside North America. Her fantastical textile works hung, stood, and slumped across two in-between rooms bridging larger galleries. She deploys reused jeans, tie-dye cottons, and other street textiles, along with found and collected bric-a-brac (seashells, for instance), upcycling these components into both small and expansive collages that create dream- and nightmare-like private underwater worlds. The large, quilt-like wall hanging the coral reef preservation society (2019) may evoke environmental concerns, complete with jellyfish, ghostly seahorses, and other scary creatures from the deep, but the prevailing sense is of inner seas being navigated. Lewis’s work uncovers something of its maker’s personal emotional landscape.

By contrast, Baghramian’s installation was restrained, spacious, and, as far as mindset and emotional range were concerned, coolly absent. Formal sculptural language came to the fore. Installed in one of the larger galleries, the smooth cast aluminum reliefs joined to colored wax-lacquered masses were able to push the sculptural into architectural space. Although at odds with the other three artists, Baghramian appeared closest to Moore and Hepworth, sharing an abstract language and the physical heft of sculptural space. The “truth to materials” motif loosely linking this rather disparate group of artists left me wondering how their differences in worldview and mindset might have been more fully explored.