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When Looking at Sculpture
Any work of sculpture should have the capacity to attract interest from afar, sustain that interest in the spectator as the work is approached, up to the moment of touching, when only the surface texture can be read. If a sculpture has a strong and interesting silhouette it will cause a person to stop and consider investigating further. If strong idiosyncratic forms appear as the work is approached, further curiosity will result, and tempt the spectator closer. If with every approaching step more interesting features are revealed, demanding even closer examination, maintaining and stimulating interest right up to the surface, then in a formal sense the artist has done all that can be asked for his work; it is not his job to predict individual response any further, his integrity is to the work. No matter what the idiom, abstract or figurative, heroic or miniature in size, this criterion will endure and prove to be a useful yardstick to the study of sculpture………
The ability of a work to attract from afar and hold the observers interest up to and including touching, holds true also for the narrative of the work. Images no matter what their idiom make the visual the thoughts, interest and concerns of the artist. Some works may thrust their story upon you others will hold it more secret, causing greater contemplative effort of the observer. So do not dismiss that which is not immediately obvious and do not respect too hurriedly that which seems so straight forward……
Sculpture exhibited in the open creates a different response to the experience of viewing that work in an enclosed space, under artificial lights. One can be dramatic, highlighting the subject in a theatrical manner, but will be seen to be limited in this way when compared to the constant movement of natural light and element drama. August Rodin considered the changing play of natural light of surface of sculpture, in particular bronze to be akin to the effects of nature that the Impressionist painters sort to render. Form and detail are alternately obscured and exposed, plunged into shadow and highlighted by sunlight, bringing life to the observation of the work that can be achieved in no other way.
The question of complication or simplification of form and detail of a sculpture, is dictated in part by the nature of the materials used, and in part by its subject (if any), and in large measure by its final siting, the nature of its environment, whether the surroundings be urban, suburban or country, the height of the work above ground and the distances from which it can best be observed and approached. Figurative work can be dwarfed by the setting unless it is heroic, and huge nonfigurative pieces can be made to seem puny, by a Grande landscape of any kind; it is all a question of scale and proportion. Scale not size, is controlled by the relationship of a works component parts; for instance by reducing the size of a head on a figure, to less than that of normal human proportion, the image will have a scale that when viewed in isolation will make it appear to be greater than life, no matter what its actual size. This corresponds to our brains recognition of the optical effect of looking up to a tall figure. Of course this illustration can only be applied to those images that use the human, animal or organic world as source material. Those who work in abstract or formal idioms will use geometry, applied or intuitive to gain that subject juxtaposition of form and detail that achieves a correct comprehension of scale relative to location…..
Seen against a natural background, the perceived stability of sculpture becomes an interesting phenomena. The constant movement of leaves and branches, sea or sky emphasis the stable nature of sculpture. Against such a background a good figurative work, well placed will create in the spectator an empathy with the image and its situation. It is an interesting exercise to imagine a lightly or unclad figures (for example)standing silently in galeforce winds or snowladen thigh deep in a winter setting. If this elicits sympathetic reactions in you the image has a positive force. Alternatively imagine a work, first confronted in a quiet country landscape, transferred to a busy urban environment, if the image has any sense of authority it will create an empathetic response, according to subject and place.
JOHN W. MILLS