The Frieze open-air sculpture park opened in the English Garden at Regent’s Park on July 4th, overlapping by a day with the Masterpiece art fair. The main Frieze art fair – or should one now call them fairs in the plural, since the event is split into two parts in neighbouring locations, are still to come.
The sculpture show is special for several reasons. First of all, it’s free. If you want a taste of the avant-garde without paying for it, come and have a look. I went on its opening day, and groups of revellers were already picnicking happily amid the various sculptural offerings. ‘Various’ was indeed the word for it. Almost any three-dimensional object, made of a wide spectrum of plausible materials, can now be presented as sculpture. The only criterion in the Regent’s Park presentation was that the objects needed to be of a certain size. This was not only something purely practical, enforced by the scale of the open-air setting. It also carried a message that this was today’s art in democratic form, not something that addressed itself to an elite.
It was here that certain problems seemed to arise. The public sculptures of the past often, in fact almost invariably, embraced very specific messages. To some extent sculptures in public urban setting still try to do so today. The reconstruction of a Lamassu, or winged Assyrian Bull, made of date oil cans, now standing on the so-called Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square, offers a case in point. It offers a commentary on the political situation in the Middle East. Even more specific is Gillian Wearing’s portrait statue of the suffragette leader Millicent Fawcett recently unveiled in Parliament Square. A rather stern looking lady stands there, arms extended, holding out what looks at first glance like a large tea-towel. On it is the moralistic slogan ‘Courage Calls to Courage Everywhere’. The trouble is that the figure clutching this has no sign of inner life. Nor, for that matter, does the reproachful Lamassu made of oil cans. It’s hollow in more senses than one.
This lack manifests itself in a rather different and less drastic way in nearly all of the figurative pieces now on view in Regent’s Park. The liveliest of them is a typical though extra-ambitious in scale Dancing Hare by the late Barry Flanagan, who died nearly a decade ago in 2009. The signature Hare, a constantly recurring image in Flanagan’s later work .is here shown cavorting on an anvil. It’s a visual metaphor that can be read in several different ways – make of it what you will. But at least you can have fun puzzling it out.
Rather less successful is a figure of Alice in Wonderland by Kiki Smith, in white auto-paint over bronze. The kneeling figure seems to be expressing a degree of shock, and her head seems much too large in proportion to her hands and feet. It’s equally difficult to warm to a large standing figure of a penguin by John Baldessari. The label tells one that it is intended as a self-portrait “six feet and seven inches tall”. The only suitable response is the time-worn put-down: “I believe you – thousands wouldn’t.” Compared with even the second- (or even the fourth-) rate figurative sculpture of the past, both of these seem naïve. Not in a good way.
It’s the purely abstract sculptures that seem to me to work best. Grandest of all is a piece called Shadow Stack, by Sean Scully, still perhaps best known as a painter rather than as a sculptor. Called Shadow Stack, this large object aims to replicate, using three dimensions rather than two, the kind of feelings and sensations Scully aims to elicit in recent paintings that are both entirely abstract and which yet, at the same time aim to summon up what experience when we look at a distant, level horizon. It seized my imagination much more successfully than the figurative sculptures around it.
Words/Photos Edward Lucie-Smith Top Photo Left to Right Barry Flanagan – John Baldessari – Bharti Kher