from 14 July 2023
Activating the lawns and landscape surrounding the barn and drawing inspiration from our summer Festival of Dance, Messums Wiltshire presents Larger Than Life, a group exhibition of sculpture by gallery and invited artists.
From Laurence Edwards’ six-foot bronze Chthonic Head, fresh from the shores of Lowestoft where it washes up for this year’s First Light Festival in June, to Sophie Ryder’s Dancing Ladies and Helaine Blumenfeld’s pivotal Souls, created in 1985 following her breakthrough exhibition with Henry Moore, the show renders the body as engine of movement in metal and stone.
In dialogue with the programme of contemporary choreography, workshops and films inside the barn, it probes the complementary dichotomies of inner and outer, fluid and solid; contingency and constancy, fleeting and timelessness.
Featured alongside works by Dame Elisabeth Frink, Sean Henry, Thomas Merrett and Jason Mulligan, these sculptures present movement and stillness as the outward expression inner states of being.
The exhibition will be on view throughout the summer months, and is accompanied by an essay by Isabel de Vasconcellos.
Image: Sean Henry ‘Walking Figure’
At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,
Burnt Norton, T.S. Eliot
I measure myself
Against a tall tree.
I find that I am much taller,
For I reach right up to the sun,
With my eye;
And I reach to the shore of the sea
With my ear.
Nevertheless, I dislike
The way ants crawl
In and out of my shadow.
Six Significant Landscapes, Wallace Stevens
Our lives today exist in a realm of multiplying dimensions. The container of the body, long understood to map the limits of the tangible beyond which faith and religion once held sway, is embedded in a non-Euclidian matrix and undergoing a process of seemingly continuous expansion through the headlong march of avatars and machine learning. It is sometimes hard to escape the bewildering sense of standing at a tipping-point where this cumbersome and fallible mechanism is about to be superseded altogether. Yet for now, it remains the instrument through which our senses collect data, create meaning and transform our environments. The questions posed by sculpture – among them how we occupy space and how we experience our body in space – may not have changed much over millennia, but they have been given a new lease and vibrancy as part of this reframing.
Activating the lawns and landscape at Messums Wiltshire, and drawing inspiration from the gallery’s summer Festival of Dance, Larger Than Life probes the complementary dichotomies of inner and outer, fluid and solid; contingency and constancy, fleeting and timelessness, through a series of encounters with the works of six contemporary sculptors.
By existing in three dimensions and encountering us on the common ground of shared space, sculpture elicits a reaction: what are you bringing to this relationship? How do you respond to this proposition? What is the effect of the body seated? standing? in motion? Do we feel more still or dynamic in relation to it?
Here, Sean Henry poses these questions most economically in his use of scale. By making his three Standing Figures extremely present and lifelike yet discernibly larger than life, he creates encounters which invite the viewer to reflect on internal life. This simple indexical shift and rupture in the continuum of scale resets the coordinates of viewer and viewed, creating the conditions where, in his words, we can “consider the space we inhabit and our identity within it”.
In The Idea Order at Key West, Wallace Stevens evokes “a body wholly body, fluttering Its empty sleeves.” It is an image of the body extended and activating movement beyond itself. What is it we remember most vividly about a person – the container, or the energy? Helaine Blumenfeld’s sculptural practice is imbued with her belief that our spirit informs our body. Her pivotal work Souls, created shortly after her breakthrough exhibition with Henry Moore in New York in 1985, appeared to her in a moment of absolute clarity. “I felt I had finally captured my vision of the soul: beautiful, fragile, and elusive. I was elated and decided to cast it immediately, without any changes, in bronze.” Celebrated for her fine work in marble, Blumenfeld chooses bronze for its dynamism and boldness; its forms flutter and sheet like four bodies complicit in a single motion.
They are joined on the lawn by the first presentation of Sophie Ryder’s 3’ Dancing Ladies, exhibited here on the year of the artist’s 60th birthday marked by two major institutional exhibitions, at the Djanogly Gallery in Nottingham and Lightbox in Woking. Ryder’s practice is populated by hybrid creatures drawn from mythology and the natural world. Central to it is the pairing of the Minotaur, half-man, half-bull, and his female companion the Ladyhare. Ryder’s intention is “to portray a joyful moment in time between three people. Probably subconsciously my two daughters and myself. Kicking their legs and tipping their heads with carefree abandon.”
Jason Mulligan draws on the ritualistic uses of carved stone, beginning with the prehistoric portable sculptures that functioned both as ornament and amulet. Pivot takes its cue from the contours of the wishbone, a lucky charm for the Etruscans and across the ages. The abstracted form, carved in Portuguese marble, echoes the twisting motion of the rotating pelvis as the body turns on one foot. In dance, the pivot signals a change of direction, which the artist associates with personal agency.
Late one night in London, Thomas Merrett saw two ghostly figures walking ahead of him, carrying long sticks. These sinister forms revealed themselves to be inspectors, prospecting for water leaks. This surprisingly low-tech task is best accomplished at deadest of night, when the atmospherics of the city are dialled down, and their listening sticks, which amplify the gurgle and flow of water, can pick up the sound. This task and its reliance on the faculty of hearing, so strangely old-fashioned, inspired Merrett’s Listener series. The works are a counsel to active listening, to rebalance reason and technology with other modalities of being; to use all of our senses in how we encounter and relate to the world.
Returning to Messums for the exhibition are Laurence Edwards’ peripatetic Walking Men, joining Shimmer and Hands On Hips towards the far end of the barn. Whether in motion or contemplation, seemingly solid or in a process of transmutation in the case of Shimmer “from metal to gas, air, swarm, flock”, Edwards feels their presence speaks to psychology. To a loss of control of an environment once mastered, and a search for a new meaning or identities to replace it.
Whether in bronze or in stone, whatever their attitude or form, the sculptures in Larger Than Life enact movement and stillness as the outward expression of inner states of being.