Beautiful Benglis! Wonderful Wakefield!

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There are few better pleasures than a day out at a really top notch gallery with plenty to see.  When the Hepworth opened in Wakefield I had my reservations, after all a whole Museum devoted to a single artist albeit a very distinguished one might struggle to reinvent itself sufficiently to keep bringing me back, but I needn’t have worried.  Some places just seem very sure footed and everything at the Hepworth is really spot on.  The staff are friendly and open from the moment you set foot inside the building, the cafe is excellent (yesterdays cakes included a delicious elderflower and lemon sponge!), the programme changes always seem to make for interesting and arresting visual experiences and conjunctions and keep the place fresh and vital.

We just made it to the current temporary show that sadly closed 1 July evening so there’s no chance for me to recommend a visit but you missed a treat.  Lynda Benglis is an artist really only known to me as a young art student for her poured pieces, that I’d bunched at the time into the same rough category as artists like Sam Gilliam, Alan Shields, Ron Davis etc. as part of explosion of alternative ways of making colourfield ‘paintings’ in the late sixties/early seventies, but after her notorious appearance in Artforum magazine (with that big strap on dildo) she disappeared off my radar.  But this show opens up the richness and diversity of an artist who has continued to experiment and, on the evidence presented, delight audiences for the succeeding five decades.

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The poured pieces are represented by several first class examples and added to them are several that were then cast into aluminium and lead.  In another room is an installation piece from the early seventies that acts as a kind of riposte to the male ‘machismo’ of minimalist sculpture at that time but these lead pieces that flop and ‘laurop’ in corners or off walls must have also made an amusing and instructive riposte to Richard Serra‘s now seeming absurdist posturing with his chucking about boiling lead.

Twisting and knotting and kneading are Benglis’s preferred procedures in the main, though she’s not averse to a bit of chucking (of a sort) too.  Using expanded polyurethane that is then cast creates huge works in glass, bronze and aluminium that exploit to the full these techniques.  However, strong and powerful work (and there’s plenty on display here) relies not on techniques and materials but on the strength of the visual ideas behind them.   The show clearly delineates how the artist uses an intense and deeply resonant sense of place to inform and shape the form and imbue content in the work.  She has over the years spent time in New York, Santa Fe, Greece and India and though never overt or obvious, these places and her experience of them has filtered the forms, colours and textures of the pieces on show.  The result is a dazzling and joyous and occasionally very witty show of great art.

But as always the Hepworth has been ringing the changes in four of its six other spaces too so that there’s always something fresh and surprising wherever you look. For example here’s something I’ve never seen before; a curious but delightful small work by Stanley Hayter that is carved out of a plaster.

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This features in a room display of sculptors and their prints. Yet another excellent curatorial idea from the team here that mixes up aspects of Hepworth’s practice with that of her near contemporaries. The Hayter piece is an odd little hybrid work (so hybridity isn’t just a 21st Century idea after all!) a plaster painted piece that might just have been made for this years RCA degree show…  Another room takes up the plaster theme with a vengeance, pulling out plaster life casts (of the sort that adorned art schools everywhere till the sixties) and mixing them with contemporary work that has taken up the theme.  Theres a series of Thomas Schutte’s imps along one wall but the real surprise for me were three pieces by Daniel Silver, someone whose work I’ve not previously experienced, but whose take on bodily figuration is both intellectually and technically inventive.  His partially erased faces echoed the poignant Medardo Rosso piece on loan from the Tate that sits in the adjacent space that features an utterly captivating single form plaster by Hepworth (another work I’m fairly sure I’ve never seen before) and a delightful little piece by Schwitters and a beautiful white relief of Nicholson’s…and more besides.

Enough…but a visit to this gallery is never less than a joy…get along there sometime!

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