Another in the BBC series of “What Artists do all Day” dealt with Anthony Gormley which I enjoyed I must say. They have done comic strip artists and so forth and haven’t for the most part done the obvious genuflections to the fine art elite.
Anthony Gormley is an interesting figure. He fits almost too well into the “Modern Artist” mould. He is just of that generation where the battles were all fought and won by earlier artists and so is well placed to take his comfortable place at the table. He has taken the approved course in his career, settling on one subject and pursuing in remorselessly, indeed some might say ad nauseam.
Part of my problem with him is that I vaguely like his work, it would indeed be a challenge for anyone to dislike it. It is thoughtful, polite, quite well conceived and generally well executed. There have been a few moments of resistance to his public works, but none of his work is really going to scare any horses in the longer term. He is I suppose very safe. I could find a certain amount of criticism of him, not only eulogy, but even the attacks on him from the Guardian and the Evening Standard lack intellectual bite. More on message critics are oddly reserved about him as he really does seem to offend no one, which is in contemporary terms his weak suit.
It is I find quite hard to focus on his work long enough to form any view. His large works are large without any intellectual reason for scale. Interviews show that he hasn’t quite grasped how expansion works in the universe, (he thinks getting bigger but staying the same shape) everything moving away from everything else at the same speed from any chosen point is a mental step too far for him perhaps.
The film was based in his studio that encompassed a host of studenty elves who carry out the tedious work of manufacture. I couldn’t help but notice that almost none of the work would be a great deal of fun to make. All drudgery and not much pleasure with barely any personal satisfaction, must be their lot. He stressed an art community ethos, but benevolent, austere autocracy looked like more the actuality. I felt a little sorry for all the young folk forced to endure uncomfortably egalitarian and probably vegetarian lunches, with the great man determinedly not physically at the head of the table. It would be more courageous and sensitive, I would have thought, to occupy the physical location that reflected the actual statuses in play. I tried during the film to spot anyone over 35 but couldn’t which is a little odd. Does he live in a world as a solitary patriarch, with no one of his own generation to threaten and intrude on his monopoly of temporal perspective?
There was a particularly funny section where people were taking, to my eye, crude 3d scans of his much observed carcass. They then rather randomly and solemnly created cubic volumes to occupy a vaguely similar space. The master stroke was then scaling these each from their centres until they became abstract intersecting forms. (Some poor bastard then had to weld them up in steel afterwards no doubt). That the scan looked to be of poor quality in the first place throws some doubt on the whole procedure, the 3D form was weak sculpturally so by adding cubes it could only improve. It was a process for its own sake, without as far as I could see any real worthwhile intellectual thought.
Another illuminating moment was when some fellow artist arrived from China on a visit. Gormley told us admiringly that the chap had been dipping a paint brush in paint every morning as a sort of ritual and it was now 30kg or so in dried paint. He seemed to think this interesting and admirable rather than risible and dull. I wondered if it was Yue Minjun as he uses figures in the repetitive way that Gormley does. Repetition indeed is Gormley’s main attribute. Other than his fondness for his own body as raw material he does that thing that so many artists do which is making a big thing out of a lot of little things. He did it once successfully with Field early on and I suppose he thinks it might work twice. Field however works because of the eyes… which he doesn’t appear to have realised, as eyes are notably absent from his work for the most part. He avoids any body part that carries any weight of character, so hands and facial features are downplayed.
I ended up feeling a little sorry for him. A large slightly clumsy and uncertain man whose mind was probably abused by priests when young (he stresses his education by monks) so as to remove too much pleasure in self worth. He looks inside himself and sees an empty void, his body as a container that bounds an empty space rather than supporting and nurturing a personality. He tries to reach within but ends up repeatedly reaching outwards, unable to come to terms with being lost and alone in the world. He is a man, like many overly large men, who has perhaps gone through life in a slightly hunched manner attempting to come to terms with the excessive space he takes up.
On the whole I suppose I liked him, despite that irritatingly superior and deeply superficial zen manner that people who have flirted with Buddhism seem to be plagued with. I can never help suspecting (probably unfairly) that such impossibly calm people actually run around stamping and shouting if a real disaster or crisis occurs! Do I think his work worth his while? Well on the whole yes, I think he would serve his ideas better if he didn’t inflate them so much. He is trying to say something intimate in a mock heroic manner which feels a little forced. However the general idea of a body either filling, occupying or containing a void is an interesting one and streets ahead of his contemporaries.
I was more impressed with a previous artist in the series Frank Quitely who draws comic strips. Frank know exactly what he is doing and why, doesn’t expect or want our admiration and is completely absorbed in his work. He is skilled and subtle beyond the bounds of Gormley but will never attract the serious attentions of an art critic. He also has an audience far larger than the famous sculptor, but not of course made up of the appropriate sort of people!