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The Form of Being a Pioneer: A Review of Breaking the Mould

Updated: Apr 1, 2023

By Melis Dumlu


Sokari Douglas Camp, 'lriabo and Child, part of Audience' 7986. Arts Council Collection, South Bank Centre, London © the artist

‘Breaking the Mould: Sculpture by women since 1945’ is the first survey of post-war British sculpture by women. Across a seventy-five-year timeline, the exhibition features the eclectic works of over forty sculptors who represent many art movements. The sculptures exhibited have been carefully selected from the Arts Council Collection, which includes the works of artists such as Barbara Hepworth, Rachel Whiteread, Veronica Ryan, and many more extraordinary women sculptors.

In order to provide a loose framework, the sculptures have been curated into three broad categories; Figured, Formed and Found. The categories are not there to divide the works, instead, they reveal how shared sculptural concepts have emerged over the course of art history through materials and new methods. Though it is a suitable platform for concurrent interrogations of binary definitions of gender, it also encourages us to see the sculptural contexts beyond these binary definitions. ‘Breaking the Mould’ makes it clear that authentic works transcend time and historical repackaging to remain continually relevant on their own terms, through artistic process and innate resilience.

Drawing on the theme of resilience and perseverance, while reflecting on challenges experienced by women artists, ‘Breaking the Mould’ encourages an attentive viewing experience from its audience.

Seeing the world through the eyes of a child, the painted chairs of Hayley Tompkins immediately calls our attention to the exhibition space. A chair is a domestic object with a purpose to be sat on, yet paint is Tompkins’ tool for making us take notice of a typically mundane object.

Hayley Tompkins 'Chair' 2077. Arts Council Collection, South Bank Centre, London © the artist.

Tompkins believes that the act of painting is a process of thinking and exploring, rather than simply creating an image. In order to construct a balance between the pictorial and the physical, Tompkins attempts to find ways of challenging the medium’s transformational possibilities.

In her practice, she seeks to understand objects through an examination of the mimetic qualities of paint and the act of painting. Tompkins selects objects she happens to find around her, and she keeps their familiar status while singling them out for attention. That is also why she calls her final products objects rather than artworks, as each one still appears to carry its own narrative.

There is a clear sense of compulsion to collect and preserve throughout the artworks on show, such as Rachel Whiteread who collects objects regardless of their context or purpose. Like Tompkins, she uses objects around her studio that she did not realise were there. The context is irrelevant to Whiteread as she believes that the works will come to her when the time is right.

Whiteread involves items of furniture and objects which are related to her childhood and her parent’s house. So, as much as she enjoys collecting, she also finds value in the preservation of these objects which construct her and her family’s legacy. Perseverance and domestic objects became tools for artists to find authentic ways within the art historical canon.

Rachel Whiteread 'Untitled (6 Spaces)' 7994. Arts Council Collection, South Bank Centre, London © the artist.

Whiteread’s work ‘Untitled’ (Six Spaces) is a series of resin cubes made by casting the space found beneath six different domestic chairs. Her sculptures are constructed from negative space and turned into a positive sculptural mass that carries personal history. Whiteread is therefore giving chance to unforgotten and unnoticed objects that carry memories.

It seems that the male-dominated art scene throughout history, which marginalised women, created enough space for new forms and authentic sculptural languages to be born.

These so-called ‘marginalised’ women bravely pioneered these methods and contexts, creating new ways of thinking that transcend beyond the boundaries of their gender.

Barbara Hepworth 'Icon' 1957. Arts Council Collection, South Bank Centre, London © Bownes

Barbara Hepworth's rounded mahogany sculpture ‘Icon’ is impeccably rendered and exemplifies her consummate mastery of woodcarving. Hepworth was instrumental to Modernism, expressing partly universal relations between the figure and the landscape. Autobiography and gender were important factors that were ingrained in her work. ‘Icon’ was made following a trip to Greece, which is said to be the place where Hepworth discovered new forms and evolved her formal language. The trip was also her journey into the grief of her first child, who died in an RAF plane crash over Thailand in 1953. Her exploration of form is therefore underpinned by her process of grief and mourning.

A continuous reminder of tenacity from these women artists creates magical nuances of abstract relationships between nature, nurture and the figure. ‘Breaking the Mould’ not only celebrates the strengths of sculpture made by women but also seeks to guard against the threat of slipping out of view by exemplifying the familiar under a new perspective. Chris Gosden and Yvonne Marshall explain their ideas surrounding the cultural biography of objects; that people and objects gather time, movement and change as they are constantly transforming, and that these transformations are also tied to each other.

In his writing of ‘Art and Agency’, British anthropologist Alfred Gell suggests that objects can behave as social actors in which they construct and influence the field of social actions in ways which would not occur if they did not exist. Even though ‘Breaking the Mould’ highlights ‘marginalised artists’, at the same time it celebrates the same fact by exhibiting such a varied collection of works. ‘Breaking the Mould’ prompts us to slow down and observe mindfully. A purposeful resolution against any biased social construct and contemporary hustle.

‘Breaking the Mould’ is a touring show, so there are a lot of opportunities to visit and explore the bold and pivotal collection of sculptures. But you can currently visit it at The New Art Gallery Walsall until April 23rd.



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