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Listening and learning: Joanna Mowbray and Keith Mellard in their own words

How do we incorporate the written statements of artists into our assessments of sculpture? In this article, Dr Maddie Boden highlights two sculptors.
A photograph of Beyond and Within by Joanna Mowbray. Sculpture is on a sloping hill surrounded by green trees.
© University of York

This week we’ve considered how art historians approach modern sculpture from a variety of different theoretical perspectives.

Their thinking shapes the way we encounter artworks. Think, for example, of a label on the wall in a gallery or museum. A curator, an expert with an art historical background, written the label based on their knowledge, research and interpretation of the object. Typically, we take what we read on the label at face value and it can influence the way we look at the artwork: what features to focus on, contextual information, and the proposed interpretation.

But where do artists’ voices fit into our understanding and interpretation of their art?

This is a particularly interesting and rich topic for modern art historians. Art historians that specialise in art before the twentieth century have a limited range of primary sources. Primary sources are immediate, first-hand accounts of a topic, from people who had a direct connection with it. So for most art historians this is limited to letters and other written documents that have survived.

For modern art historians the advent of television, radio, photography, magazines and other new media means that they are a large number of primary sources that directly involve the artist. In this course, we’ll watch videos where we hear from Barbara Hepworth, Damien Hirst, Austin Wright directly.

Access to this large body of statements from artists poses challenges for art historians. How should the incorporate what an artist has said? Should their statements be used as the only, authentic way of interpreting the artwork? Or should their words be considered biased and set aside in order to make an objective assessment?

Here are two examples from artists featured in the York sculpture collection.

Joanna Mowbray’s Beyond and Within (pictured at the top of this article) is a large sculpture made from hot rolled steel that sits outside Wentworth College. Like many artists today, Mowbray has a website which includes an artist’s statement. Artist’s statements are a recent concept, which started in the 1990s. The statement is a first-person description of the art and its purpose. It can put the work into context, reflect on its meaning or describe the technical processes to make it.

Here is an excerpt from Mowbray’s statement:

My art practice involves the construction of sculpture, drawing and collaborative performance/dance work. The research is concerned with the relationships between three-dimensions and two-dimensions, the physical and metaphor, movement and stillness, light and shadow. Work is made for gallery exhibitions, interior/exterior sites and architectural spaces. My work explores shape, line, form, perimeter, position, location, in response to spaces within, around and in-between. My concerns are to construct work in harmony with the space in which it is to be located, whether it is a domestic, architectural, landscape or urban environment. To create spaces that can celebrate the location, and the constant changes of the surroundings, people moving, light and weather.

Looking at Beyond and Within, does the statement help you to understand the work better? Mowbray goes beyond a verbal description of the sculpture and instead highlights the wider themes of her work such as metaphors, harmonies, and movement. How could you include those ideas in a verbal description of the physical object, Beyond and Within?

The second primary source we’ll look at it is a video. Keith Mellard is a local artist from York and pictured below is his stone sculpture Euonia is displayed inside Alcuin College. Click the link to watch this short documentary that shows Mellard working in his studio and reflecting on his art.

Keith Mellard

Mellard’s tone is quite casual, warm and practical. The informal camera angles and close-up shots of Mellard’s face and sections of the studio give a sense that we are having a chat with the artist. He openly discusses where he finds his material and his process. After seeing his studio and working methods, how might this influence looking at Eunoia, a carved stone sculpture? Eunoia is an abstract sculpture with a Greek name that translates to “goodwill towards others” – something the average viewer might not know. Does Mellard’s casual and approachable tone make this work easier to look at as a viewer?

Through Mowbray and Mellard’s words we are able to add a new perspective and dimension to our interpretation of sculpture. Primary sources can be insightful documents that give an in-depth view on the creation and intended meaning of a work. However, they often do not tell the whole story and art historians and other experts can still contribute useful interpretations for understanding artworks.

© University of York
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Modern Sculpture: An Introduction to Art History

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