Hepworth Prize for Sculpture shortlist, review: a strong shortlist - but one stands out

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An installation by Michael Dean, a frontrunner for the Hepworth Prize for Sculpture
An installation by Michael Dean, a frontrunner for the Hepworth Prize for Sculpture

The second incarnation of the £30,000 Hepworth Prize for Sculpture arrives at a moment when you’d be forgiven for wondering if sculpture still exists, or certainly as it was understood by the great Yorkshire sculptor and local heroine after whom the biennial award is named.

The organic-abstract forms of Barbara Hepworth, which still embody many people’s idea of modern sculpture – many prime examples of which can be seen at The Hepworth Wakefield gallery, where work by the shortlisted artists is currently on show – have an uplifting, hand-hewn wholeness. But while there’s a strong shortlist for this year’s award, with three of the artists well known, there’s precious little that feels whole or reassuring in the ensuing exhibition.

Sculpture today, it seems, is about fragmentation, about accumulations of “stuff” placed in inscrutable juxtapositions in which the touch of the artist’s hand, in the traditional sense, is barely discernible.

If this feels dauntingly obscure, one of the artists at least tries to make us laugh. London-based Dutch artist Magali Reus (born 1981) produces uncategorisable structures that make you wonder, at first, if the installers have left some of their kit behind: neat arrangements of bent and curved steel ladders, without the rungs, draped with lengths of nylon hosing.

Her work is a kind of 3D collage in which all the elements are meticulously fabricated, but serve no practical purpose – playing, presumably, with our perceptions of the objects that surround us, but which most of the time we barely look at. The presence of large glass fibre hats and accoutrements such as bottles and quasi-cubist wellington boots that have sections cut away, gives these works an unexpected human dimension. Yet the tone of Reus’s work is so numbingly abstruse that when we learn that Dearest (Sour Grapes) represents a flâneur – a bohemian stroller – waiting outside an off-licence, it doesn’t make us chuckle in quite the way it should.

Sentinel (Watermelon) by Magali Reus Credit: Lewis Ronald/Courtesy the artist, The Approach, London and Galerie Eva Presenhuber, Zürich / New York

The fact that Reus is the partner of fellow artist Helen Marten, who won both the Hepworth Prize and the Turner in 2016, wouldn’t need mentioning if Reus’s work didn’t look like a sparer and more laconic version of Marten’s. Reus feels like an artist in her own right, but I doubt the judges will reward two artists with such similar sensibilities consecutively.

Phillip Lai (born 1969) seems to be mining closely related territory: the aluminium catering counter that dominates his exhibition is dotted with functionless steel vessels, with over-long and absurdly curved spouts. High shelves are piled with cement-spattered plastic bowls, interspersed with sheets cut to look as though they serve some arcane industrial purpose – they don’t, of course. Lai’s USP is that he makes everything himself, or as much as he can. But does the knowledge that a plastic bowl you might buy in a pound shop can be crafted with the Zen-like care you’d expect of, say, a Bernard Leach ceramic pot, make you feel differently about the domestic objects around you? Perhaps not as much as it might.

In contrast, the two best known and more senior artists on the shortlist make objects with beginnings, middles and ends; not that their work is in any way traditional. Mona Hatoum (born 1952) presents spherical objects alluding to conflicts racking the Middle East and other parts of the world (though based in Britain, she was born in Beirut). Hot Spot is a mesh globe with the continents delineated in pulsing red neon, suggesting imminent catastrophe, while Orbital is a sphere of steel rods threaded through chunks of concrete from demolished buildings. Considering the devastation of buildings (not to mention people) during recent conflicts, these works feel rather too polite and tasteful. Hatoum’s 2016 retrospective at Tate Modern included powerful works on confinement and surveillance, but here she seems to be treading water.

Detail of Hot Spot (stand), an artwork by Mona Hatoum Credit: Ollie Hammick/White Cube

Cerith Wyn Evans (born 1958) is best known for his neon light works, but here, he presents two enormous eliding sun-like structures, their beams formed from 37 crystal glass flutes. They play a composition by Evans, consisting of layered rasping drones, using bellows powered by the building’s ventilation system, so that the air in the room, effectively the viewer’s breath, is playing the music.

It makes for a powerful visual impression as you enter the exhibition, but the intended musical call-and-response between the two suns didn’t seem to be working as intended when I visited. More importantly, the idea of an artist commandeering the physical functions of a building, and the building reciprocating by determining the content of the work or – as in this case – literally playing the music has been seen quite a lot in recent contemporary art.

If all the work has so far erred towards the neat and tidy, that can hardly be said of the piece by Michael Dean (born 1977), a notional “pavement” formed from plastic sacks of concrete dumped on the floor, looking a bit like swollen grey tongues, on which the viewer is invited to walk. Speech and language are the keys to Dean’s work, which he sees as a visualisation of his writings, inspired by the violent Tyneside housing estate on which he grew up.

Everywhere there’s a sense of groping towards literal meaning. At one end of the walkway are a couple of large wire hearts bristling with lovelocks, at the other a heap of loose change adding up to a day’s pay on the National Living Wage. If Dean is arguing that love inevitably leads to penury in sink-estate Britain, the effect of his piece is far from depressing. Where everything else in the show feels rarefied and theoretical, Dean’s exuberant visual clamour seems rooted in the world of real people and real things, making him, in my view, the best contender for this year’s prize.

Until Jan 20; 01924 247360; hepworthwakefield.org