The diversity of sculptural practice is so extensive now as to incorporate almost any aspect of three-dimensional space an artist might engage with. Insofar as it still involves the production or appropriation of three-dimensional objects, it is rare for contemporary sculpture to stand alone, rather its objects are more frequently either components within an installation, interactive elements of a performance, or the trace remainder of some previous performative action on the part of the artist.
Consequently, almost forty years since the critic Rosalind Krauss coined the term ‘sculpture in the expanded field’, David Sowerby’s body of work in The Idles That Habit Forms appears in some ways remarkably and unusually traditional in its approach to object-making in formal sculptural terms. A wide range of modernist sculptural references, whether directly intentional or read-in by the viewer, clearly inform Sowerby’s work – from the early 20th century Russian constructivist Vladimir Tatlin’s ‘corner pieces’, to Joan Miró‘s assemblages cast as totemic human forms, to Anthony Caro’s 1960s and 70s ‘table sculptures’, or the (now old) ‘New British Sculpture’ of the 1980s, particularly perhaps Richard Deacon and Tony Cragg.
The works in this exhibition comprise skilfully crafted forms that allude not only to such sculptural traditions, but also to objects in the world around us, from designer loudspeakers, to machines with no obvious function, to the human body itself. They are unique objects yet their process of manufacture carries with it the potential for multiple production. The skilled and accurate use of jig-saws, band-saws and table-saws, set up to precise angles to cut the component parts, is in turn dependent on elaborate preparation through drawing and calculation. These highly engineered production methods result in a sophisticated formalism, but there is an important backstory to this body of sculpture that opens up a very different set of readings and metaphorical understandings.
Sowerby’s ‘day-job’ is as a technician, supporting and enabling fine art students in their own production of sculpture. The ‘raw materials’ of this body of work are the offcuts and leftovers of his students’ developing art practice, accumulated through the often mundane activities of his employment, but later transformed through his own habitual processes and aesthetic sensibilities. In the exhibition text, Sowerby describes his role in the ‘humble arena just off stage where plans are made and material is processed’, and the ways this has ‘supplemented his practice with the practical refuse of fabrication and the day-to-day rituals and structural problem-solving of work’. Knowing this, the formalist aspects of his sculpture become enriched by readings and understandings that reveal a whole set of relationships between work and pedagogy, fabrication and aesthetics, the learning of skills and the nurturing of creative intuition.
The exhibition’s title linguistically adds further layers of complexity to the work, setting up the pun of ‘idles’ and ‘idols’, exploiting the various meanings of the noun, ‘form’, and the verb, ‘to form’, as well as suggesting the role habitual activity might have to play in art-making. Thus, Sowerby uses language to suggest that, underlying technical skill, there might be a process of idle habit, and that sculptural form in the modernist tradition is a contemporary means of creating fetishised objects, idols. Sowerby’s combination of such conceptual understandings with his sophisticated making skills is what transforms this body of work from an exercise in formalist sculptural aesthetics to a provocative exploration of the complex inter-relationships of labour and technique, learning and intuition, craft and conceptualism in contemporary art practice.
The Idles That Habit Forms, Project Space: School of Fine Art, History of Art and Cultural Studies, University of Leeds, 29 September — 21 October 2017.
Derek Horton © 2017