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Forging the future

Feature

Polly Bielecka, Director of Pangolin London, pays tribute to three formidable female sculptors featured as part of Venus Unwrapped this year.

In 2011, I curated an exhibition at Pangolin London called ‘Women Make Sculpture’ which was intended to remind everyone of the very fact stated in the title.

It also attempted to challenge and reverse the common image of sculpture: a man wielding heavy-duty machinery or an increasingly romantic and outdated vision of a smocked Rodinesque figure modelling away in quiet solitude. It was a varied exhibition of both abstract and figurative work that highlighted the wealth of creativity from female sculptors in Britain. It received a lot of press attention, but collectors were wary.

Fortunately, since 2011 we have seen some progress: women sculptors are now seen in the public eye. Sarah Lucas and Phyllida Barlow represented Britain at the Venice Biennale in 2015 and 2017, respectively. Last year Gillian Wearing was the first female artist to be commissioned to create a sculpture for Parliament Square, a portrait of Suffragist leader Millicent Fawcett. More and more public institutions are recognising the imbalance in their collections and putting more effort into programming female artists, with Cornelia Parker at the Royal Academy, Barbara Hepworth at Tate Britain and Louise Bourgeois at Tate Modern being recent London highlights. However, at auction there remains a divide when it comes to sculpture. The highest-ever sculpture sale at auction is Giacometti’s L’Homme au doigt, which sold for $141.3m in 2015 – Louise Bourgeois’s Spider sold for $28.2m the same year. With more women building their own collections and becoming patrons of the arts, one would hope this will eventually change.

Indeed much of the history of female sculptors has still to be written, as has that of women working in many areas of the traditional art canon, despite the fact that they have been making for millennia. Our programming at Pangolin London, like the music programming at Kings Place, isn’t taking a feminist stand but simply putting male and female sculptors on a level playing field and celebrating the creativity of humankind.

What unites the three sculptors we are presenting this year is not their gender but their drive, dedication and ability to problem-solve and persevere. Our first solo exhibition celebrates the indefatigable Charlotte Mayer’s 90th year. Born in Prague and emigrating to the UK in 1939, Mayer was one of only a few women to study at Goldsmiths and the Royal College of Art in the late 1940s at a time when women weren’t always welcomed into the sculpture studio. Her unquenchable energy and resilience put her in good stead and her oeuvre is defined by elegance and poise, qualities often inspired by nature and which she has applied to both intimate works as well as a number of large-scale public commissions. This exhibition will feature a new series of delicate ‘nest’ sculptures cast in bronze, alongside recent work whose original models are often crafted from delicate natural materials, such as apple peel dipped in wax or carved slithers of wood, before being transformed into bronze.

‘there are plenty of goddesses playing with fire in their welding studios, forges and kilns’

Merete Rasmussen was born in Copenhagen, brought up in Sweden and has lived in the UK since 2005. She has been working the same stoneware for over 20 years, so understands her material and its limitations intimately, enabling her to create her boldly coloured, gravity-defying sculptural ceramics. Widely collected across the globe and by institutions such as the Victoria and Albert Museum and the Museum of Arts and Design, New York, Rasmussen’s hand-built ceramics and cast bronzes delight the eye with their flowing forms and movement. She says: ‘I work with the idea of a composition in three dimensions, seeking balance and harmony. The finished form should have energy, enthusiasm and a sense of purpose.’

Ann Christopher RA was the youngest female sculptor to be elected an Associate Royal Academician in 1980 and was elected a full RA in 1989. Working primarily in cast bronze, stainless steel, silver and fabricated Corten, Christopher is not shy of metalworking tools and, unusually, works each sculpture directly in the metal once it has been cast to give it an organic hand-made element, in contrast with the precision of the machine-milled lines and grooves that give her work such dynamism. Last year Christopher created an impressive five-metre-tall commission Following the Journey for the Royal Academy’s Keeper’s House Garden which comprises an elegant elliptical form perched on a beam and held under tension by two cables fixed to nearby buildings. Her solo show at Pangolin will include new sculpture and works on paper.

Sculpture has often been associated with the Roman and Greek gods Vulcan and Hephaestus but it is time we adjusted those outdated perceptions: there are plenty of goddesses playing with fire in their welding studios, forges and kilns. If we must have an allegorical figure to illustrate that persona, my guess is that she is part Minerva, part Vesta and – of course – part Venus.

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