Reality Falls Away
Glenn Barkley

McClelland Gallery + Sculpture Park


If there is one thing that appeals to art punters it’s skill and realism. It’s something that is upfront in the work of major sculptors of the twenty-first century like art super-brands Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst et al. Perhaps it’s the most interesting part of their work— done not by themselves but instead left to production lines of studio assistants, all polishing and carving and when that doesn’t work, you just outsource the carving and modelling to craftspeople and specialised services across the world.

Cast against this, David Esterly in his masterful book The Lost Carving, digs down deep in to the nature of carving [1] and its relationship to the body and the hands, realism and individual skill and craft. To Esterly the constant carving, which by its nature can be quite a singular activity, is an antidote to the glossy bauble like qualities of contemporary sculpture that is so connected to the market and to superstardom, reflecting both metaphorically and physically, the world in which we live — pure narcissism.

And while branded globailsed art dominates art-fairs, exhibitions and galleries all over the world there is still a need to place value onto the handmade, the slow crafts and skills that have evolved over 100’s of years — that are centred on individuals that seem to say — I made this, I touched this, I saw this.

Alex Seton, a maker par-excellence, works for and against the idea of the artist craftsmen and contradictorily questions the romantic idea of the artist in his studio whilst revelling in it.

He acknowledges the selfish joy of making, while trying to dismantle it at the same time: ‘Why is there a demand from the audience for this idea of labour? Why do we need an overt display of effort?’

Seton, like Esterly, places a lot of emphasis on the very act of making. And although he is aided when he needs to be by both assistant and machines — he uses them for his own ends when ambition may outstrip the sheer physical force needed to extract a form from a solid block of marble.

(The part of me that responds to that seems to be overwhelmed by the part of me that has been trained to be sceptical of the studio...even writing those words is difficult. Imagine actually doing it? But I think you do it for your own curiosity as an artist. The satisfaction of making is irreplaceable and unique. Why would you want someone else to do most of it, or even all of it, for you?)

You might think what is the point of Seton’s work? In a moment where perhaps anything goes, surely just dumping the ‘real’ objects themselves in the gallery like flotsam and jetsam would be enough.

Is it too farfetched to imagine a meditative space where the process assumes more importance than it should? Seton is no stranger to this. In perhaps his most revealing exhibition Roughing Out [2] he showed the different ways a sculpture could be made — pre-empting a purely mechanised future by looking into its past through what he called ‘chicken and egg questions’ [3].

The key work The recursive time machine (2013) is composed of a number of elements but at its heart is a pantograph 3d modelling machine [4] that the artist manipulates to replicate a copy of his own hand that has been made from cornstarch using a digital 3d printer [5].

All this interrogation of method foregrounds the work and I think the push and pull between skill for its own sake and an obvious strident politic is what he is trying to resolve in the exhibition Last Resort. There is so much skill in Seton’s work that it could begin to overwhelm its political content and the trick is, to incorporate both skill and intent equally.

In Last Resort the context is paramount [6] especially to an Australian audience — an oar, a raft, a life jacket — these can only speak of our recent shameful history. Of refugees, border panic, hopelessness and lies. There is the obvious use of objects that float — like a blow up palm tree — all of which have to do with leisure and holidays in the sun, albeit a slightly trite, corny tropical paradise where we are oblivious to the world around us.

But it is the element of surprise that comes through the making that is an important one. The false nature of deception in the work and where the objects start to move in and out of focus between realism and abstraction is at the heart of it. Knowing when to stop and when to pull back is then transferred to the viewer. I think to some this may cause a kind of visual despair [7].

There are a series of etched lines running around the back part of Life vest M (emergency) 2014 that could signify it as being in an unfinished state — as if the artist will come back. He seems to be saying that he is not trying to fool you, importantly this isn’t a life vest it’s a piece of stone. Maybe he is also drawing our attention to the beauty of the etched marks whilst also playing with the eye, or even with touch, in putting one type of surface against another breaking the light in a different way, adding visual and nuanced complexity to the carving by putting one sort of texture and shape against another.

Similarly Durable solutions 1 (2014) is a carved marble version of a child’s blow up raft. It is deflated but leant against the wall. When you first see it, it looks to be made with great verisimilitude. This scale works beautifully and it’s something that is surreal yet familiar recalling funerary statuary or a monument to the drowned. Its art-fullness is discovered in the moment when the realism falls away and the work becomes abstracted. What looked to be hyper real is in fact quite roughly hewn. The obvious carving of the stone making it more human, a unique thing in itself.

It’s a simple but effective trick that takes it all the way back to sculpture’s traditions and the relationship between figure and plinth or pedestal. Marble more than any other medium can do that. I imagine that there is also self-indulgence at play — anyone who has made an artwork knows the precious freedom that making a mark can do. Just etching a line across the surface of the marble, which at the end of polishing and buffing is done up close as if looking into the marble itself. It is easy to understand the way you could lovingly fall for a roughly grooved line, wanting to maintain each engravings individual beauty before it becomes too refined, losing its rough tactile vitality.

I don’t think they can deceive you as objects — I think his visual language and style is not about deception, it’s not politics after all. The sculpture and its making becomes a metaphor for broader social realities and like politics it’s about reading what lies behind the work’s veneer to reveal a deeper subtext some of which is subtly intimated, some of which is obvious.

It is about that moment when something that seems refined and solid is revealed to be made up of marks and scratches. When stone becomes stone and reality falls away.

[1] The Lost Carving: A Journey to the Heart of Making, David Esterly. ‘Chapter VII: The Thinking Body’ is a careful dissection of the shallowness of Koons, Hirst et al. It does go without saying that the sheer shallowness of their work, its lack of intellectual depth and self-reflective qualities is its subject. Does this make it great — maybe or maybe not? It is worth mentioning that Esterly’s own work, as an incredibly skilled lime wood carver, and indeed Alex Seton’s work, signal a broader return to craft based traditions that is in some ways are reactions against the new orthodoxy. You only have to look at the way ceramics and textiles have invaded the contemporary art museum for further proof. The rise of ‘workshop culture’, the high rate of middle class attendees to gallery public programs now remodeled as access programs, and even the emergence of websites like Etsy are proof of people’s needs to get their hands dirty and moving. The “I made this’ DIY movement then leads to a greater understanding of an artist like Alex Seton – even having some understanding of the physicality of making, increases your understanding and comprehension.

[2] Roughing Out, Hazelhurst Regional Gallery & Arts Centre, 2013. Seton translates the term Roughing out as ‘the process of the beginning’ see watch?v=8MV7aQCIFEo (accessed 22/9/2014)

[3] ibid

[4] A pantograph machine can make a copy of a large object into a small object, or vice versa. Digital routers and 3d printing machines replaced them.

[5] A machine which is more than likely to be obsolete in one years time.

[6] It is also worth questioning what will happen to the objects once they are taken from the context of the exhibition. Although they maintain their meaning they can be reduced simply (I use that word facetiously) to an immaculate beautiful, coveted object.

[7] I admit that I have had difficulty in reconciling the connection between the carved objects and the ‘real’ objects that they incorporate. Seton has mentioned he wants to work against virtuosity — the work becomes incredibly finicky (decorative) and puts emphasis on technical prowess — “exactly what I do not want...the ‘real’ elements contrast the carving and help make the ‘illusion’ melt away upon closer inspection. A self-acknowledgment of its own artifice” This is part of the system of operating dualities within Seton’s work like hard/soft, light/heavy, real/unreal.