Plaster: Casts and Copies

Plaster: Casts and Copies is a two-part exhibition taking its point of departure from Barbara Hepworth’s plaster prototypes, which are on permanent display at The Hepworth Wakefield. Curator Sam Lackey has spoken of the need to offer insight into the ‘often overlooked’ medium of plaster and it is this need that the exhibition bases itself upon, addressing the widely changing significance of the plaster medium across art history.

The exhibition opens with a display of plaster works by Hepworth and her inter-war contemporaries, demonstrating how these artists turned to plaster as a cheap and portable material at a time when other materials were scarce. Alongside its practical applications, the display emphasises the aesthetic appeal of plaster for these artists as a medium sympathetic to their own artistic concerns. Ben Nicholson’s ‘1936 (White Relief Sculpture Version I)’ is seen in terms of the affinity between plaster’s clean purity and that of abstract art; Arp’s 1961 ‘Winged Being’ recalls his writings on the tactile quality of sculpture ‘made by the hand of man’; whilst Kurt Schwitters’ ‘The Clown’ (1945-7) and Eileen Agar’s ‘Angel of Mercy’ (1934) utilise plaster’s constructive nature to build intricate mixed media assemblages.

Further developing these concerns, the second half of the exhibition seeks to assess plaster’s cultural as well as material significance through the juxtaposition of plaster copies of classical sculptures alongside works by contemporary artists. A dialogue of the classical and the contemporary is self-consciously referenced in many of the contemporary works, such as Thomas Schütte’s 2006 ‘Wichte’ (translated as ‘imps’), which replaces the traditional classical portraits of unique individuals with grotesque, gargoyle-like busts. The artists utilise humorous, and potentially sacrilegious, reinterpretations of the eternal, universal values embodied in the Greek works, with Anthea Hamilton’s ‘Luke Perry’ (2009) raising the figure of the pin-up to the Grecian column, and Rebecca Warren’s ‘Come, Helga’ (2006) offering a post-feminist view of feminine beauty at odds with that embodied in the 19th century cast of ‘Esquiline Venus’ also on display.

The plaster medium becomes the further subject of inquiry as the works’ engagement with mimicry and the ‘copy’ raises questions regarding the nature of reproduction. The continuing significance of reproduction across art history is referenced in the 19th century casts of Greek sculptures, many of which themselves were re-produced from Roman copies of the ‘original’ works. Kris Martin alludes to this copying process in the 2006 sculpture ‘Mandi VIII’, a life-size replica of the ancient ‘Lacöon and his Sons’ sculpture held in the Vatican. Eduardo Paolozzi’s ‘Michaelangelo’s ‘David’ of 1987 presents plaster as a found object, in this case a plaster found by Paolozzi at Harrods, which he physically deconstructs to subsequently piece it together with string. Questions of autonomy and authenticity in relation to the art object are raised, recalling Walter Benjamin’s insistence on the original artwork’s ‘here and now’ for the establishment of its ‘aura’.

The exhibition succeeds in prompting dialogue between the classical, the modern and the contemporary whilst offering a re-evaluation of plaster, a medium most often viewed in relation to its role in bronze casting rather than as a material in its own right. The diversity of works on display is testament to both the versatility of the plaster medium, and its continuing relevance to 21st century artistic practice.

Plaster: Casts and Copies continues at The Hepworth Wakefield until 8 May 2016.

Image: Plaster: Casts and Copies Installation View, 2015 Image Courtesy: The Hepworth Wakefield. Photograph: Tom Arber.

Clare Nadal is a writer, curator and art historian based in Sheffield.