There was a time, (and yes, it was in the sixties) where the ‘box’ was a popular motif in art. It featured in the work of Joseph Cornell, Louise Nevelson, Robert Morris, Don Judd, Jasper Johns, Andy Warhol and even Frank Stella, whose deep stretchers gave his paintings a box-like feel. Empty boxes became minimalism’s signature form, but the device was also useful to others literally interested in content. It’s this latter interpretation that is titularly referenced in an exhibition of recent sculptures by Peter Hide.
Formally this means that the outer profile of many of the pieces is cubic, in a general way, while the elements that lie within its six-sided confines appear loose and separate. Drop Box, 2013, and Jewel Box, 2010-11, exemplify this container/contents idea quite explicitly. The artistic challenge of this dichotomy comes from the fact that boxes are boring and contents are interesting and the success of the individual sculptures seems to rest on denying this fact. For that reason Jewel Box is less satisfactory because the contents are too recognisable, too anecdotal, while the surrounding sculptural fabric is too anonymous. The Drop Box contents are more shapes-without-a-name than figurative objects and there is more going on in the rest of the work to complicate the dichotomy, including a large hollow that concludes in a circular hole in the confining plane.
Box Valley, 2011, is better still. The outer structure is far more active and it supports fewer, blanker elements so, despite the title, the central relationship registers less as a ‘box plus contents’ metaphor and more like a ‘mother and child’. This also suggests a dependency and continuity between formal elements that is certainly emphasised by the material unity of the medium used in this work and in most of the other exhibits.
On a small scale, rusted mild steel has legibility problems. In compact arrangements it’s hard visually to pick out the structural events that constitute the work. Tonal shifts offer the best clues and Hide’s sculptures benefit from the strong overhead lighting in the gallery. Shadows become very important to the work’s visibility but, given that the viewer is often looking down at the pieces, the upper areas, where the ‘contents’ collect, catch more light and attention than they perhaps should. One begins to value the forms produced by chiaroscuro, the unlit vents, fissures and gaps, particularly in the vertical planes, as in the especially effective scooped lacuna in Crown Royal, 2009.
All-Round Cube, 2012, though haunted by a hexahedron, gets away from the dichotomy of container/contents and, perhaps, opens up a possibility for Hide that might be worth exploring further. It seems to belong to a world where the space between atoms has contracted, where already solid and compacted material has progressively collapsed in on itself, producing a super-density, like that at the centre of a dark star from which no light escapes. A language of inward compression goes against the grain of sculptural developments that have followed from Picasso’s ‘experiments’ with guitars and absinth glasses of 1912-14. In that narrative, a whole, compact object is turned into a sculptural artefact by being expanded. The sculptor’s problem then is, how to keep the bits from flying off in all directions. The forces in All-Round Cube, travel in the opposite, centripetal direction. The sculpture feels not just heavy but more condensed or compressed than an ordinary object. That fits with its smallness, a characteristic that otherwise might speak of timidity or faintness of heart.
The other artist showing at the Piper Gallery, Walter Early, also works small, but if he is timid and faint hearted he is determined to cover it up. Colour is Early’s USP, a seven hued spectrum from red to purple: Not just colour, but high gloss, oven-baked enamel colour, which forms a hard shell over the underlying material. That turns out to be metal, a sort of found metal, a waste product of a working process that one assumes involves sufficient heat to soften and curl the detritus into the shapes which he then joins together to make sculpture. (I really don’t want to know if that stuff is called ‘jonnycake’.)
The bright, multi-colour coating may be an attempt to propel the work well beyond the cultural sphere of steel sculpture readily acknowledged by Peter Hide. Its extreme shine couldn’t contrast more vividly with the surfaces of that tradition, even if one includes Caro’s painted work, but it’s difficult to know what other artistic category might accommodate it, even that cute one to which the work of Jeff Koons and Youtube cats belong.
Despite the special pleading of the colour, it still looks much like a type of steel sculpture, but unfortunately lacks any of the art form’s virtues. It might be that the eccentric material out of which it’s constructed comes out already configured as we see it, like clinker from a furnace. However, at some point one feels that Early has had to engage, however briefly, in sculptural activity, choosing and assembling a few promising elements, making compositional decisions about the horizontal or vertical axis, and so on. In Jonnycake 5002, 2012, (blue) and Jonnycake 2002, 2012, (purple) there seems to be an effort to set up a rhythmic flow between the elements and, on the very limits of critical generosity, one can possibly discern something like a rise and fall counterpoint in the tangled short-crust lumps of Jonnycake 2004, 2013, (orange).
Mostly, however, what one assumes to be individual, constituent parts are formally inadequate. They do not seem able to summon up enough energy on their own, nor when casually interacting with adjacent forms, to contribute meaningfully to a credible sculptural entity.
I’m not sure this exhibition tells us much about where the enterprise of steel sculpture currently stands. Though worthy, Hide’s pieces feel slightly grumpy and unadventurous. All-Round Cube, as I have said, might dissent from the expansionist tendency that is so much part of modern sculptural grammar, shared even by contrarian artists like Tony Smart and Katherine Gili, but it may prove hard to follow up. Early’s arriviste attitude should be bracing and exciting, even if wrong-headed, but his intervention in the tradition results in clumsy and rather immature solutions which do not develop or renew its vocabulary, despite the colour. That doesn’t mean that this particular enterprise is exhausted. It only shows how difficult it is to make good art.
Peter Hide and Walter Early: Protesting Time, Piper Gallery, London. 15 October – 22 November 2013.