Paul Kasmin Gallery presents an exhibition of sculpture by Barry Flanagan (1941 – 2009), bringing together a selection of the artist’s iconic bronze hares from the 1980s – 1990s alongside his lesser-known works made with rope, sand, cloth, stone, ceramics and light as a sculptural component (largely from the 1960s – 70s). A series of small paper collages, drawings, prints and film are also included.
The exhibition, curated by Dr Jo Melvin, offers new insights into the interconnectedness of seemingly distinct periods of Flanagan’s 40-year career, demonstrating an ongoing experimentation with materials and their properties and a symbiosis between abstraction and figuration. It challenges the supposition that Flanagan’s later works represent a marked shift in the artist’s approach to art-making. Rather, they represent the distillation of Flanagan’s decades-long fascination with ontology, movement and the physicality of the various materials with which he worked.
For Flanagan the activity of making sculpture, although primarily visual, involved orchestrating ways to demonstrate the sensual and the tactile; surface, color, weight, balance, sound, and light. From the outset of his career, Flanagan questioned expectations and value structures; testing the limits of the genre and so redefining sculpture’s conventions.
In 1966, immediately on graduating from St Martins, Flanagan was offered a solo exhibition at the Rowan Gallery, London, rapidly establishing his reputation as a leading figure of the Avant-garde. Deeply engaged with structural composition, explicitly exploring shape and form, and constituting, in terms of materiality, a profound break from traditional sculpture, the works in that exhibition played mischievously with perception. On their presentation, art critic Paul Overy remarked that the works looked “soft to touch, like cuddly toys, but are in fact rock hard – which is nicely disturbing.” Flanagan soon received international acclaim for his intuitive and inventive approach to materials, which aligned him with the emergent movements of Arte Povera and Land Art, known under the rubric of Conceptual Art.
In 1979 Flanagan’s investigations turned to figuration, modeling and casting in bronze at a time when the medium was as unexpected as the soft sculpture and use of building materials had been to its audiences fifteen years previously. He was drawn to the figure of the hare, the motif for which he is now best known, via his immersion in country pursuits of game keeping and poaching. The publication of George Ewart’s ‘The Leaping Hare’ in 1972 cemented his engagement with the hare’s mythological and ’pataphysical iconography, and after witnessing the animal dash across the Sussex Downs, the artist was struck by its mysterious, acrobatic, unpredictable movements as set against the backdrop of an untamed wilderness.
Flanagan’s primary fascination, however, lay in the hare’s anthropomorphic potential; its ability to magnify a range of expressive attributes, to convey meaning and feeling beyond what he felt was possible in the manifestation of human form. These works, elaborating on the dynamic potential of bronze first radically proposed by Rodin, have been celebrated across the world from the moment of their debut and emit a bounding life-force unparalleled in contemporary sculpture.
Despite the pronounced contrasts, both formally and materially, across his bodies of work, Flanagan’s oeuvre is connected inextricably by the fact of their ongoing exploration of and dialogue with Alfred Jarry’s ‘pataphysics, or the “the science of imaginary solutions.” Engaged with the dual possibility of presence and absence, interior and exterior, the theory attempts to essentially distance philosophy from logic, instead championing its inherent incoherence as functional, even necessary. Since understood as a central tenet of Dada and Surrealism, ‘pataphysics represents a challenge to academic seriousness, its hermetic perversity inspiring a century of innovation.
In bringing together works that span the scope of Flanagan’s inexhaustibly explorative career, Paul Kasmin Gallery continues its decades-long examination into the enduring influence of one of the world’s most celebrated artists.all images © the gallery and the artist(s)