McClelland Sculpture Survey & Awards 2014

January 31, 2015
Dorota Mytych, 'The Small', 2014, bronze, patina 500 elements: dimensions variable. McClelland Sculpture Park+Gallery, Photo: Mark Ashkanasy 2014
Dorota Mytych, 'The Small', 2014, bronze, patina 500 elements: dimensions variable. McClelland Sculpture Park+Gallery, Photo: Mark Ashkanasy 2014

It is the ambition of the McClelland Sculpture Park + Gallery, according to its director, Robert Lindsay, to be the national focus of sculpture and Australia’s leading sculpture park. While Sydney’s annual Sculpture By the Sea might covet the first title, the McClelland’s only serious competition as an outdoor display is probably the Heide Museum of Modern Art on the outskirts of Melbourne.

Sculpture is always popular with the public but the expense and scale makes it hard to sustain any regular exhibition. Sculpture By the Sea is the exception to the rule. Its unique setting, and its appearance at the same time every year, has allowed it to become an eagerly anticipated event.

There is a gulf between the way temporary and permanent installations are perceived. People who enjoy the gimmicky works they see along the foreshores in Bondi may be horrified when councils spend ratepayers’ money installing gimmicky works in public places. Not many art-lovers seem to be thrilled by the prospect of a $2.5 million milk crate in Belmore Park.

The McClelland Sculpture Survey & Awards has followed a more irregular course than Sculpture By the Sea. The first three Award shows were held biennially, in 2003, 2005 and 2007, the fourth came along in 2010, and the current one at the end of last year. Up until 2008 the Helen Lempriere Bequest also sponsored a National Sculpture Award in Werribee Park, which left the field looking slightly crowded.

With a first prize of $100,000 (acquisitive), and overall costs in excess of $200,000, the McClelland Award is Australia’s richest sculpture prize. The money comes from the Elizabeth Murdoch Sculpture Fund, and from Neil Balnaves, who remains one of this country’s most dedicated art patrons, even though he seems to have fallen out of love with the Art Gallery of NSW.

In addition there is the McClelland Achievement Prize (MAP), which is worth $30,000 and the promise of a solo exhibition at the gallery at the time of the next Survey. This year there is a show of Pop sculptures by previous MAP winner, Christopher Langton, and a bonus installation by Alex Seton. Finally there is the Frankston City People’s Choice Award, provided by the local Council, and valued at $20,000.

The McClelland has a proven commitment to public art, with the drive out to Langwarrin being punctuated by large-scale sculptures installed by the side of the road. The 2014-15 survey, which features 33 artists or groups of artists, is arranged in bushland, which turns the display into a scavenger hunt as viewers discover new sculptures at every turn. This arrangement also influences the choice of winners, as the success or failure of the siting is an important component of each work.

One would think it would be a problem for those sculptors who prefer to exhibit their work indoors, but the bush proves to be a sympathetic setting for almost every piece. A bigger problem for this year’s judge, Liz Kreijn, Assistant Director of the Kröller-Müller Museum in the Netherlands (which I visited only last week) was the sheer variety of the selection. There is no credible way to compare a bronze echidna by Dean Bowen or a sandstone figure by Vince Vozzo with this year’s winner: an abstract, stainless steel construction by Matthew Harding, called Void.

McClelland Sculpture Park+Gallery, Void, stainless steel 650.0 x 800.0 x 260.0 cm. Photo: Mark Ashkanasy 2014

McClelland Sculpture Park+Gallery, Matthew Harding, ‘Void’, stainless steel 650.0 x 800.0 x 260.0 cm. Photo: Mark Ashkanasy 2014

First there is the issue of scale. Void is larger than many other entries, and seems larger still because of its spiralling forms that suggest an infinite extension into space. It’s also conceptually ambitious, with Harding quoting Einstein in his catalogue statement, referring to both the universe and the atom.

Despite these cosmic affiliations, against a background of trees and scrub Void resembles a gigantic spider web. The sunlight shining on and through the steel strands is reminiscent of the way a web catches the light. Looking at a photo gives no indication of the way the piece works in situ.

This year’s MAP winner was a more controversial choice. Sonia Payes is better known as a photographer, and there is a lot of digital manipulation involved in her work, Re:Generation, comprised of three fibreglass heads, each with four faces. The faces, which are partially buried in the earth, belong to the artist’s daughter, Ilana, who was the subject of an extensive photographic series of 2007. These images have been stitched together on a computer and translated into three dimensions in a factory.

McClelland Sculpture Park+Gallery, Re:Generation  fibreglass, UV stable gelcoat. Photo: Mark Ashkanasy 2014

McClelland Sculpture Park+Gallery, Sonia Payes, ‘Re:Generation’, fibreglass, UV stable gelcoat. Photo: Mark Ashkanasy 2014

It’s a technical tour-de-force, but bound to alienate the purists who believe a sculpture should be created by the artist using his or her own hands. Some would say this is an old-fashioned view, given the success of entrepreneurs such as Jeff Koons or Damien Hirst, who have everything made by assistants.

The factory-made idea has caught on in China where Payes undertook a residency in 2012. When I was there a couple of years ago it seemed that every contemporary gallery was filled with colourful fiberglass sculptures that were spectacular but empty. And this is the danger of having an artwork made to specifications: it becomes merely the realisation of a design, like a piece of furniture, or a prop made for the cinema or theatre.

There is no reason that Payes shouldn’t be able to make a successful transition from photographer to sculptor. This is the way Fiona Hall’s career developed, but with the important difference that Hall has always taken a hands-on approach. By the time the next McClelland Survey comes along, we’ll see if Payes has built on these factory-made foundations.

Another artist to use 3D printing, fibreglass and aluminium casting is Louis Pratt, who has been producing life-sized figures twisted into unlikely shapes. A backwards attitude is a sculpture of the artist literally bending over backwards. It’s a startling piece to stumble across in the bush, but the novelty soon wears off.

It must be seen as a positive step that the McClelland is prepared to embrace such a diversity of approaches, as there is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ in art, only differing degrees of persuasiveness. Many will be more convinced by a work such as Dave Horton’s In Pace (in peace) after Verocchio’s Doubting Thomas. For Dad. As the title suggests, the piece has both personal and art historical dimensions.

Like Anthony Caro, who made a dazzling series of sculptures after paintings by Rembrandt and Rubens, Horton has used rusted steel to produce an elaborate, abstract meditation on a Renaissance sculpture by Verocchio. It would be ideal to look at a photo of Verocchio’s work to get a sense of Horton’s transformations, but it’s clear that every element has been carefully considered.

Horton’s sculpture sits like an iron altarpiece in a clearing. Other artists have created works with totemic qualities, such as Greg Johns’s Floating figure, or Andrew Rogers’s Gaia, which resembles a weathered stone monument from an archaic civilisation, complete with a touch of gold at the tip. Matt Calvert’s Die back is equally monumental, being nothing more than a simple pillar. The key point is that the pillar is made from the glass one finds in car windshields, suggesting a roadside memorial to victims of motor vehicle accidents.

Two works that stood out from the crowd are Benjamin Storch’s Orbital and Dorota Mytych’s The Small. The former consists – or appears to consist – of a single sheet of stainless steel twisted into a couple of artful arabesques that give the piece an exceptional dynamism when viewed from different angles. Being highly reflective, it has a constant shimmer.

Mytych’s installation uses 500 tiny, individual bronze figures scattered like insects around a nondescript square of grass and dirt, and a small brownish pond. Tiny figures even perch like beetles on strands of reedy grass emerging from the water. Some figures are borrowed from art history, others from everyday life. It’s a crowd scene, but one that the viewer might walk past without noticing. It reminds us that a sculpture need not be a vast, heavy object with an imposing presence. Even in a competition where each artist strives to be more visible than the next there is something compelling about a piece that obliges us to pause and go looking for the line that separates art from nature.

The McClelland Sculpture Survey & Awards 2014
McClelland Sculpture Park + Gallery,
Langwarrin, VIC.
Until 19 July 2015

Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, Saturday 31st January, 2015