Sotirios Bahtsetzis – Review of the Masters 2017-2018

Review of the Masters 2017-2018 Exhibition of the Sculpture Department of The Royal Academy of Fine Arts Antwerp by art critic and curator Sotirios Bahtsetzis

The Royal Academy of Fine Arts Antwerp in Belgium has a long tradition. It was founded in 1663 and it is one of the first of its kind in Europe. The Masters programme of the Sculpture Department, in which Vaast Colson, Anton Cotteleer and Nadia Naveau advise students seems to be one of the most vibrant programmes of the Royal Academy of Fine Arts Antwerp. I have recently visited the graduating students of the Master program in Fine Arts Sculpture and I was fascinated by both the variety of the student’s practices as well as the spatious studios and facilities offered to them. There is a metal working studio, a stone sculpting studio, and a well equipped woodworking studio among other facilities which seem to go against the current trend in some art schools, which actually don’t put any emphasis on practicing skills and working with materials. It seems, however, that studio practice becomes imperative in current times, in which virtuality and digital consumerism prevail.

The Masters 2017-2018 Exhibition of the Sculpture Department of The Royal Academy of Fine Arts Antwerp exhibits a profound experimentation with various materials, assembled by a variety of techniques of fabrication such as welding, modelling, molding, casting and assembling. What is striking about the exhibited works is that they repeatedly invite feats of iconographic interpretation only to call into question, through their sheer physical presence, the very idea of such readings. Indeed, the works may accrue meanings drawn from a viewer’s personal associations. One might be compelled to discover references to pre-existing visual motifs, or possible allusions to familiar textual sources. However the works’ associative power derives from their immediate linkage to the signifying practices of contemporary sculpture – as these have been developed and formalised since the 1970s. Artists have used techniques including bending, folding, stitching, welding, bolting, tying, and balancing to construct sculptural objects in order to highlight the ways in which these processes, procedures and techniques of fabrication constitute possible instances of signification in themselves. The works of the exhibition are characterised by impermanence as opposed to the finished artefact, performative elements, installative considerations, and a sincere and perceptive transdisciplinarity, which seeks to transform sculpture beyond its accustomed boundaries.

The works by Leendert Van Accoleyen, large-scale, mixed-media constructions, designed for a specific place and for a temporary period of time refer clearly to the sheer physicality of bodily actions. Suspension and movement combine with each other a wide variety of natural materials such as iron, wood or stone and found objects which deliberately relate to the devices used during our past industrial era. This “archeological excavation” and the making of prototypical and dysfunctional machines invite us to contemplate on our current postindustrial situation. There is a profound environmental sensibility in these works, which seeks to make us aware of the fallacies of the impact of humans on the Earth’s geology and ecosystems, while on the same time it proposes an imagined if not actual escape from our “inauthentic” way of living informed by techno-hyped spaces of posthuman consumerism. A fascination with tinkering seems to undermine our affection with technoscience.

The works by Charlot Van Geert are presented as an environment of colourful sculptures which combine elements cast in bronze with “unstable” constructions fabricated with

polyurethane foam. Foam functions as a prosthetic device, which upsets and even negates both the functionality and the sublimity of the bronze objects. At the same time the foamy attachments which function as the extension of the bronze acquire a strange, graffiti-like two dimensionality which transforms the overall environment into a peculiar scene cut out of a comic strip. In this regard, these fragile ephemeral constructions, which in their treatment exhibit the unconstrained use of colours and shapes, involve a return of the vernacular and informal. Along with a wealth of imagination and a feeling for decorative effects the work highlights the insignificant objects of daily use and their amusingly absurd or even comical poetics. At the same time the work attacks the sense of unity (so impervious in the case of contemporary sculpture) and the concept of formal world, that is a world in accordance with convention, with a postmodern reenactment of an early modern aesthetics of the fragment.

Materiality plays an important role in Jack Davey’s work, an artist who has been educated also as a fashion designer. Some of the works, which use fabrics and textiles as main materials include relief-elements, that is, wall-mounted sculptures in which the three-dimensional elements are raised from a flat plywood base. The actual form of these relief-elements is gained through a process of filling a cloth with gyps and letting it harden. Gravity and the flow of air are the forces that give shape to the initial material. No casting or modelling is involved in the process. The formal contingency of the forms which are produced in this way reveals sculpture’s transitory nature – a paradox when seen with the eyes of traditional sculpting techniques, which seek to have an absolute command upon the material. At the same time Davey’s objects somehow seem to mock painting’s most familiar support: the canvas, the surface for oil painting. These grotesque moulded elements, which some times obtain expressive anthropomorphic shapes recon that a painting can also be sculptural, or that clothing can be seen as a form of sculpture, thus, blurring the boundaries between genres. At the same time Davey’s objects can be seen as a drapery which seeks to conceal and reveal. If Davey’s objects function as a surrogate body or a second skin, then, they sought to explore the body’s dual status as both carnal substance and signifying surface.

It is more than obvious, that for many of the works in the show there is an emphasis on performative elements. In Leo Lopez’s work these elements, such as traces of manual treatment on stones roughly refer to the artist’s bodily engagement with the material. The shiny surfaces of rocks bear marks of an elaborate and meticulous treatment, which occasionally seem to free these solid aggregate of one or more minerals of their physical substance. Lopez’s art deals with a notion of the sign as inextricably connected to the body, that is, both the body of the artist as well as the body of the beholder. The viewer can find traces of the artist’s body imprinted on the surface of black mirrors placed in the exhibition space. At the same instant, Lopez uses materials such a marble, glass, gypsum or salt (also a type of mineral) while designating with them specific areas on the gallery floor in which viewers are invited to enter. In one occasion viewers are invited to play a game with small spherical objects made of clay. However, there are no rules in this game, so there is never a win or lose situation. The viewing process invites rather into participation in a choreographed ritual, inspired most probably by the artist’s preoccupation with martial arts. Also in this case, there is an obvious awareness of installation art, which takes into consideration the performative presence of the beholder.

Robert Soroko’s work pays also particular attention to the active engagement of the viewer in the exhibition space, meaning that the spectator has to walk through in order to engage fully with the created environment. Also in this case, there is an emphasis on ritualistic performative actions. The speculative metallic machinery of Soroko, a series of kinetic sculptures, doesn’t function autonomously but waits to be activated by the artist who in the presence of the viewers installs the pieces. During the clearly meditative performance Soroko is helped by a group of co-performers who in the sounds of music created with the help of the metallic sculptures and some wind instruments move across the space, much like in a Butoh dance piece.

Lynn Depreeuw’s work focuses on a gradual transformation of materials (ranging from clay to felt and fabric) into objects while paying particular attention to the maker’s hand as a site of artistic investigation. The tactile sense seems to govern all of Depreeuw’s meticulously finished objects. However all these objects are presented either placed on a self-made booth or by inviting the viewer to use them – for instance, in the form of wearable sculptures made of fabric. In this regard, the sensuous and personal relation to materiality acquires a social and participatory component. One might suggest that Depreeuw makes use of the processes of industrial design and its preoccupation with problems of form, function and usability, as well as with issues of physical ergonomics and brand development. However, her idiosyncratic adaptation of processes of automated replication (including methods of model making, prototyping and testing) seems to elevate design’s prevailing social and aesthetic attitudes into the sphere of pure aesthetic contemplation.

The work of Pieter Van der Donckt alludes to the tradition of minimalist sculpture typified by artworks composed of simple geometric shapes and grids. These forms have been however altered either by acquiring irregular shapes or configurations which in one occasion at least, derive from the visual language of social media, emojis used in electronic messages and web pages. However, a famous emoji, such as the thumbs-up gesture indicating approval now rendered 3D, has been altered by simply adjusting to it elements, which derive from gendered subcultures: a butt plug. It is obvious that the visual language of Van der Donckt’s objects has a clear political message against our social media addiction and the on-going suspension of our democratic rights, which has culminated in the 2018 Facebook–Cambridge Analytica data scandal. When minimalism aimed at representing such qualities as immediacy, order and simplicity, Van der Donckt’s postmodern adaptation of it demonstrates rather and a coy carelessness towards such an orthodox aesthetic conformity and a superfluous playfulness towards art’s apolitical stance.

While still making use of common materials used in the plastic arts, such as bras, concrete, plaster, steel or paper Yorgos Maraziotis’ art focuses on conceptual processes which translate one visual language into another. The sculptural forms in his art derive in some occasions from iconic and historical artefacts, such as an archaic vase, which now acquires a new identity through processes of repetitive mechanical reproduction. Maraziotis’ transdisciplinary approach considers also painting (in this regard the unprimed canvas and acrylic paint) as another way of interrelating materials with each other. Motifs observed in his sculptural objects are to be found in the paintings. At the same time, the sculptural forms often acquire a two-dimensional, drawing-like character. In this regard, both sculptural and painterly elements create an autonomous environment, which as a visual composition seems to negate the difference between

positive and negative space. Since all elements in the environment have a rather raw appearance, they elicit a feeling of fragility, if not vulnerability. It is obvious that they function as remnants, rather as relics and reminders of our material culture – which includes art. The indexical properties of the objects open up to the viewing experience a conceptual space of trauma, loss and mourning. If we consider that sculpture has been central in religious devotion in many cultures, we can assume that Maraziotis postmodern practices of signification – his “parergonal frame” – restitute this lost aura of art.