Review – This autumn, the Tate pays tribute to one of Britain’s art pioneers – Barry Flanagan (1941-2009). Achieving international renown for his bonze hare pyramid sculptures, gracing prominent public spaces around the world (including NYC’s Park Avenue in the mid-1990s), Flanagan has entered the canon as a one trip pony. This major Tate Britain exhibition, however, seeks to debunk this myth, arguing that the success of this late series obscured the breadth and depth of his practice: focusing on his early studio practice from 1965-1982, we are given a vision of a new Barry Flanagan; of an innovator at the cutting edge of sculpture whose practice culminated in, rather than was dominated by, the production of an iconic piece of bronze-work.
The exhibition starts at the beginning, with his enrolment in the ‘vocational’ course at St Martin’s school of Art between 1964-66 (contemporary with Gilbert & George and Bruce McLean), where he began questioning the nature of sculpture, prioritising process and material over structure, and experimenting with non-conventional, often found stuffs such as sand, felt, or canvas sacks. The show also highlights a key early influence on Flanagan’s practice – the absurdist ‘Pataphysics’ of French playwright and author Alfred Jarry (1873-1907), best summed up as ‘the science of imaginary solutions’. We are then taken to Flanagan’s acclaimed first solo exhibition at London’s Rowan Gallery, and onwards through his early career, with many and varied works on display: from his stone works responding to the particular character of each lump (exploring the tension between the artist and the artisan, tradition and anti-tradition), to his ‘light on light on light sacks’ installation (a meaty mound of hessian sacks jam-packed into a corner of the gallery space with a rectangle of light projected upon them). The viewer is ever-kept on his/her toes – while Flanagan’s carvings are at times reminiscent of Brancusi (!), his installations seem to single him out as the British Joseph Beuys.
The exhibition ends with the Large Leaping Hare of 1982. But this is not simply a crowd pleaser: through contextualisation, we begin to comprehend afresh, this show making it clear that the transition from studio to foundry sprung organically from Flanagan’s early practice. His use of bronze, for instance, followed a series of small maquettes for carvings in which the modelling of the clay remained visible. Equally, the motif of the hare, that would occupy Flanagan for much of the rest of his career (not to mention bringing him fame and fortune), came from his perennial attentiveness to the world of literature – Jarry’s logic of the absurd simply being superseded by George Ewart Evans and David Thompson’s ‘The Leaping Hare’, a book exploring the hare’s mythical attributes through history.
This is vintage stuff, invaluable from an art history perspective. But crucially, while the work today is classic rather than vital, Flanagan’s early joy and playfulness cannot but impress upon the viewer, the inquisitive experimentation on show making this exhibition well worth it.
Words/ Photo Thomas Keane © 2011 ArtLyst