The Human Factor: The Figure in Contemporary Sculpture presents an exhibition in a book, in a more satisfactory format than the usual catalogue. The show, which ran at the Hayward Gallery (which also published the book) in London from 17 June to 7 September last year, includes 25 artists working during the past 25 years. The sculptures demonstrate a very wide range of media and strategies in figuration, from manequins to boxy molds to elaborate tableaux. Essays by Ralph Rugoff, Penelope Curtis, Martin Herbert, James Lingwood, and Lisa Lee helpfully contextualize the work on view and the argument of the exhibition that there has been an upsurge of figural work over the past two and a half decades.
Not every important figural artist is represented, but there’s a wide range of styles and artists, arranged alphabetically rather than according to any of the material or formal issues raised in the essays. There are also a couple of inserts among the plates that address the issue of the production of the works.
Both the straightforward arrangement of the images and the non-glossy paper on which they are reproduced are positive choices: the categorization of the work is left to the reader (with or without having read the essays) and the matte paper somehow makes the images more accessible, less separated from the viewer than would be the case with a coffee—table style glossy production.
There are some interesting juxtapositions possible among the works. Both Yinka Shonibare and Ryan Gander re-think Degas’s Little Dancer from a socio-political perspective. Both use humor and realistic representation, but to quite different effect. Jeff Koons and Paul McCarthy both use hyper-realism to investigate contemporary culture, and both tweak our sensibilities and sexuality, but each is disturbing in a contrasting manner. Pavel Althamer and Pierre Huyghe deploy impermanence and natural processes, but in ways that diametrically diverge.
The majority of the figures is in a relatively straightforward form of representation, whether in appropriated or constructed forms, but some of the most powerful work in the show uses distortion to interrogate the figure and its meaning, particularly the sculpture of Rebecca Warrenn and Huma Bhabha.
Whether one accepts the notion that there is a current resurgence in the use of the human form or not, The Human Factor demonstrates the vitality of the figure as a means for investigating the current state of both art and life.
By Glenn Harper