A Lesson in Sculpture with John Latham

The Henry Moore Institute’s A Lesson in Sculpture brings John Latham’s work together with that of sixteen other artists from across the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. The show is an exploration of conceptual art through sculpture, from Marcel Duchamp to Carey Young. These pieces help to situate Latham’s highly theoretical practice and demonstrate how his legacy is being reiterated in current artistic practice and discourse.

Conceptual sculpture is necessarily allusive and non-specific in its explorations. For Latham, this is its unique quality. In conversation, he repeatedly talks about the origins of the universe and the way that art can contribute to theoretical problems surrounding our existence. For him, sculpture is a method of enquiry. As such, it rivals science in its claims to knowledge. For Latham, art has an advantage over direct theorising because it can point to the ineffable. It fills the space that science can’t fill.

Latham is convinced that science does very little to link our understanding of our own lives to the dynamic forces that created us. Rather than trying to answer these questions through science, we might explore these mysterious beginnings through the non-verbal language of sculpture. In this way, art can be understood as a map that takes us behind physics, logic, theology and philosophy. It is able to do this because it is inherently personal, and retains the marks of intention, reflection and understanding. As such, it reflects an event, which in turn reflects the ‘dimensionality of a person’ – the patterns of cognition which we assume to be going on in everyone’s heads.

In art, meaning is always coupled with intentionality. Art reflects the action of making art, which reflects cognition and intentionality. At the same time, we assume that this intentionality points to greater meaning – that the artwork itself points to meaning outside itself. However, conceptual art necessarily obscures meaning, or, it can point to deeper or more mysterious meaning by being non-representational.

Sometimes, this deep meaning is achieved by combining objects through assemblage. Latham’s use of books in his sculpture are a primary example of this. Books can be understood as symbols of communication, cognition, psychology, and invention. They represent invention, the birth of an idea, but also hint at ‘birth’ more generally: the birth of a human being, their genetic trace stretching back in time, and the birth of the universe. This web of meaning coalesces around Latham’s Cluster sculptures (1992), which make celestial objects from books, spray paint, and expanding foam.

This axis of meaning is also in Mary Kelly’s An Earthwork Performed (1970), which schematises the action around digging for coal, and in doing so highlights the action of digging, the schematic intentionality of an artwork, and the symbolic qualities of coal as prehistoric and time-dense. Latham’s Study for Bing Monument (1976) does something similar by injecting shale oil into the pages of a book, and Cornelia Parker’s Just when I need him most (2005) does this by exhibiting singed hymnal sheets which were rescued from a burning church. Burning is a natural process, it destroys and renews. The hymnal sheet, which communicates words and music, adds an extra layer of meaning by implicating human creativity, cognition and communication.

A Lesson in Sculpture can be viewed as a story of assemblage through which works accrue meaning through the layering and juxtaposition of symbolic values. Moored in Latham’s thinking, the dialogue between his work and others builds into an evocative web of associations, centring around cosmology and philosophy. The exhibition suggests that such a combination of assembled objects can produce non-cognitive meaning, though in many cases this task is left to the viewer.

 

A Lesson in Sculpture with John Latham is at the Henry Moore Institute, Leeds, until 19 June 2016.

Image: Cornelia Parker (left) ‘My Soul Afire’ (1997), hymnal retrieved from a church struck by lightning in Lytle, Texas, diptych; (right) ‘Just When I Need Him Most’ (2005), hymnal from the Baptist Church of Green Ridge, Kentucky (set ablaze by arson), part 2 of a diptych. Courtesy the artist and Frith Street Gallery, London. Image courtesy of the Henry Moore Institute.

Laurence Piercy works in the third sector and writes in his spare time.