Since it opened in 2011, The Hepworth Wakefield has been at the forefront of innovative thinking in the visual arts, consistently delivering outstanding world-class shows featuring the work of acclaimed national and international artists.
So it seems entirely appropriate that as part of the gallery’s 5th anniversary celebrations this year they should come up with another ground-breaking idea. Launched in March, The Hepworth Prize for Sculpture is the UK’s first ever prize for sculpture. The £30,000 biennial award recognises a British or UK-based artist of any age, at any stage in their career who has made a significant contribution to the development of contemporary sculpture.
The winner will be announced on November 17 but in the meantime an exhibition showcasing the work of the four shortlisted artists – Phyllida Barlow, Steve Claydon, Helen Marten and David Medalla – opens at the gallery today.
“We want the show to encourage questioning about what modern sculpture can be and what it means as a 21st century medium,” says curator Andrew Bonacina as he leads me around the exhibition. It is certainly successful in its aim to give the viewer a broad experience of contemporary sculpture. The artists’ practice and approach couldn’t be more different from each other – yet they are united in one aspect, they are all interrogating in their own way what sculpture is and what it can be. “The prize is less about lifetime achievement and much more focussed on the work the artists are making now and how that pushes the boundaries of the medium,” says Bonacina. “I think all four on the shortlist are artists who are thinking in the moment and it has enabled us to bring together a show that has a real reach, breadth and diversity.”
The first room we come to in the gallery we enter through yellow industrial plastic curtaining, the kind you might find in a warehouse or factory, or a large supermarket freezer. Then you notice the smell as you brush against the curtains. It turns out they are impregnated with citronella, used to repel mosquitoes and midges. Claydon is an artist whose work certainly investigates the outer edges of what sculpture can be, making it not just a visual medium.
“His work incorporates many pieces that work in ways beyond materiality,” says Bonacina. “So he uses light, smells, sounds and there is an antagonism in each of the works. His sculptures often pair historical artefacts with contemporary things to question how we ascribe value to things. He also plays with values through the materials – there is a ‘dishonesty’ about the materials he uses.”
An example of this is a sculpture which appears to be composed of wood and metal but is in fact made out of polyurethane. Another ‘trick’ is his use of one of the existing walls in the gallery. He covered it in dark blue magnetic film, then threw pennies at it. From a distance it looks like a rather beautiful night sky constellation.
Around the corner, Phyllida Barlow is in the midst of installing her monumental work screestage. Theatrical and dramatic, it features columns which might be tree trunks in a dense forest and a sloping edge covered in brightly-coloured picture frames.
“I put it up once before in Iowa but in a very different space,” says Barlow. “It is doing things in this space that I hadn’t actually expected which is quite exciting. The making of the work is not a foregone conclusion; it has to evolve and that has its own tension about it because it’s always being done within a time frame. So time and gravity combine.”
Her other, wall-mounted sculptures – blackcoils 2016 using ropes and toletsigns 2016 – have been reconstructed from existing works out of disposable items which refer to structures you might encounter in an urban environment.
Helen Marten’s work is elegant and intriguing – intricately constructed installations that use familiar domestic images and objects, made from a huge variety of materials, to create pieces that play with the relationship between two and three dimensions and invite the viewer to unpick the meaning. “Her work features recognisable forms exracted from life and then remade and refined,” says Bonacina. “She uses a collage approach to making sculpture and there is an exuberance about it but there is also real precision. The planning and craftsmanship required to create these is astounding and the final effect is conceived right from the start.”
David Medalla’s long career has produced exquisitely delicate works inspired by places and people, informed by complex combinations of memories and evolving relationships. His work has included painting, performative pieces and his ‘auto-creative’ sculptures which first appeared in the 1960s. For the Hepworth show he has created a new version of his seminal work Cloud Canyons, 1964-2016, which features a ‘bubble machine’ and Sand Machine, 1963-2016, that comprises sand, shell, necklace and bamboo. He is also presenting a new iteration of his ongoing participatory piece A Stitch in Time. A hugely popular and wonderfully simple, inclusive idea, it invites visitors to stitch words, pictures or small objects to a piece of octagonal cloth. “I’ve done it all around the world since 1967,” says Medalla. “Imagination transcends all boundaries.”
Running until January 22, 2017. Visitors are encouraged to vote in The People’s Choice Award. Visit www.hepworthwakefield.org/prize.
Phyllida Barlow was born in Newcastle in 1944. She has exhibited internationally and will represent Britain at the 57th Venice Biennale in 2017.
Steven Claydon was born in London in 1969. From 1997 to 2003 he was a member of the electronica band Add N to (x) while also practicing as an artist.
Helen Marten was born in 1985 in Macclesfield. Her work was in the 2015 Venice Biennale and she has been shortlisted for the 2016 Turner Prize.
David Medalla was born in the Philippines in 1942. Medalla’s works have been shown internationally including at the Venice Biennale in 2015.