Reviews: New Shows at the Hepworth, Wakefield

Since it opened in 2011, the Hepworth, an impressive building beside the River Calder in Wakefield, has become of the big success stories of the Yorkshire art scene. It takes its name from Barbara Hepworth, one of the most successful UK abstract sculptors and artists of the 20th Century and includes a permanent display of her work. This includes sculptures that stand in the grounds of the building and the breathtakingly beautiful winged form that is the centrepiece of the collection.

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Family of Man – Barbara Hepworth

The Autumn shows which have just opened at the Hepworth are all linked to themes of conflict. In the centenary year of the start of the First World War, this is a well mined theme and it’s to the artists credit that their work all feels distinct and fresh.

Toby Ziegler explores themes of the duplication and devaluation of the human form, presenting hugely blown up images in contrast with a frieze by Charles Sargent Jagger commemorating the horrors of the world war. As part of the show, a 3 dimensional printer produces an endless stream of teapots, echoing the themes of duplication. He poses the question of what happens when the image of the body becomes so duplicated that it becomes a commodity. It’s a somewhat surreal show, with an almost Python-esque feel and yet it retains a sense of human fragility. This fragility is also to be found in  Ziegler’s accompanying show in the nearby Calder building, Expanded Narcissistic Envelope which also explores themes of duplication, technology and fragility.

Alexandra Bircken’s show Eskalation makes an immediate, striking visual impact with deflated black leather suits hanging from ladders that reach up to the ceiling while nearby there stand tactile bomb like objects that recall the fear of airborne attack in the nuclear age. It’s a dark and nightmarish space and yet also a sensual one. Contrasting with this are delicate, flowerlike constructions, at once hopeful and vulnerable. Bircken’s work is rooted firmly in the body and themes of protection and attack. It feels highly pertinent to  2014 and the wars currently raging across the world. Of all three shows it is the one that has the most emotional impact. In a curious way, it reminded me of the little remembered anti-war animated film Wizards. It’s a show that is a thought provoking pleasure to walk around.

Folkert de Jong brings together reproductions of suits of armour worn by Henry VIII and modern firearms to create a haunting, war torn tableaux for The Holy Land The effect is of an eternal and nightmarish battlefield of symbolism. A real sense of melancholy hangs over this show and a questioning of the values we attach to objects of war. The figures appear exhausted and tortured, on the verge of crying out and yet silent. A flotilla of model ships add to this air of sad beauty. All that is held as magnificent and powerful in war is revealed as battered and diminished, unable to live up to its own legend.

While all three shows have their own identity, they also come together to create an exploration of images of conflict and war. At a time when such images are never far from the electronic devices we use, they are timely in seeking to remind us of our fragility.


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