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The Iconography of Small Metal Sculpture


Scale is important when it comes to sculpture. A model horse on a coffee table in your lounge is a completely different object, has very different associations, to the great bronze horses in St Mark's Square in Venice. Material too has a significant bearing on the qualities we attribute to sculpture. Recent trends to the appropriation of every conceivable material as suitable for sculptural use has changed the way we perceive the traditional, such as cast bronze. What then is to be made of small cast metal sculpture at the end of the 20th century?


Looking through the catalogue of work shown on this web-site, one's first impression may be one of a rather confusing variety of themes and styles. There are abstract pieces, such as the"Sail Series" which are explorations of pure form, texture and colour, and others which use abstraction evidently derived from natural forms to develop an idea, such as "Africa", which was made when images of famine in Ethiopia dominated news bulletins daily. There are naturalistic pieces, such as the bird sculptures and other animal themed works. Undertaking commissions has led to the making of model buildings, such as Edinburgh Castle and Rhosdubh House, trophies such as the Short Story Prize and Gymnasts and even a submarine. Obvious links exist, those of scale, methods and materials, that is nearly every piece of work shown on these pages is a small cast metal sculpture. But what aesthetic ideas do they share? How are my concerns as an artist expressed in all this diversity?

In the early 1970's, I found myself living in the then gracefully decaying city of Bath. I bought myself a few chisels and a soft iron mallet (which remains one of my favourite tools to this day), since I was moved to start carving the temptingly soft limestone with which it is built . Study at Bath Academy of Art led me into contact with the sculptor John Huggins, at the time enthusiastically experimenting with casting his own and his students' bronzes, and I was hooked. I have been casting metal in my own foundry ever since. And the themes and formal concerns sparked off then have also carried through to the present time.
First sail (1975)
My first bronzes, such as First Sail and After Tutankhamun were of necessity quite small, but abstract works. At this period, however, I also started life-drawing and made some sculptures derived from this. These early works set a personal agenda, but were made in an ideal world where the concerns of needing to sell in order to continue working had yet to become an issue. The following years saw the introduction of new threads as I strove to make a living through casting others' work in my foundry, and a period when I set up a small company making a range of cast jewellery, until commissions for small sculptural pieces gradually took over the commercial side of my work. This has meant the introduction of an outside agenda for themes, the extensive use of silver as a material, and the use of a naturalistic aesthetic style for many pieces. One further important factor in my development has been exposure to the influence of Japanese casting artists following study trips to Japan in 1994 and 1996. This has had both aesthetic (see post -Japan works) and technical (e.g. High Heels 5) influences.
Current orthodoxy about craft skills in relation to making art objects often appears to propose that such techniques as are necessary can be quickly picked up as and when required for the project in hand. It has even been suggested that learning in-depth skill gets in the way of freedom of expression. Obviously there is an important place for improvisation and experimentation, but it has never been proposed that authors should not learn how to write, or that musicians should not master an instrument. If the idea should be paramount in the conception of art then I suggest that what counts above all in the visual arts is what things look like. And it is also important that objects should be well made, if they are to have any but the most ephemeral of existences. Only in the field of the visual arts, theory is in danger of outrunning common sense, and the" Emperor's New Clothes" syndrome flourishes luxuriantly. Having been trained as a scientist, to be sceptical of all theory unless it can be proved by experiment to be useful, I remain convinced that skills are actually valuable assets. I have always sought to continue to learn about the use of cast metal as a medium, concentrating on small works, and I have sought to find ways in which to make art-objects in this medium which have some kind of relevance in today's world. I believe that there is a significant difference between a work executed entirely or at least predominantly by the skilled hand of an individual artist and one where an idea is conceived by a theorist and executed by a technician. Having operated at times as a technician, casting sculpture for others, I know from experience just how many decisions are made about the work as it progresses through the stages of casting (refer to lost-wax casting page for an explanation of what is involved). I personally prefer to render my ideas without dilution by doing the work myself.

The history of Western sculpture in the first half of the 20th century demonstrates a clear progression towards abstraction, with a healthy seasoning of ideas about truth to materials, as exemplified by the strength of the movement to direct carving as a medium. By the early 1970's these ideas had the power of orthodoxy, and although new ideas about the use of free-form media were developing through "happenings", these had limited appeal to me. I have instead tried to follow a route of truth-to-materials in the context of lost-wax casting. The very fluidity and versatility of some of the materials involved, wax, plaster, molten metal. does not mitigate against this, only obscures the fact to the untutored eye. Cast metal is not usually regarded as a medium in its own right in the Western tradition, since the process has so often been delegated to specialist craftsmen, whose role was to execute the orders of the originator of the piece. But if one returns to the writings of Bevenuto Cellini, the master-metalsmith of Renaissance Florence, it is obvious that he handled the whole making of his work, and viewed the creation of the finished metal cast as an integral part of his job.
G Lochhead &Saito Akira
Gordon Lochhead with Saito Akira and some of his work, Tokyo, 1996
The tradition in the East is rather different. Amongst the earliest recorded Chinese civilisations, the Shang nearly four thousand years ago, and subsequently the Chou, valued cast bronze vessels as of supreme value. And as early as the 3rd century CE, Chinese collectors prized two thousand year old antique bronzes. This has meant that the art of the metal caster has always been seen in a clearer light in the oriental tradition. So in Japan today there exist departments in major art colleges, such as Tokyo National University, devoted to the art and craft of the metal caster, and there is also a national association of professional casting artists, the Nihon Chukinka Kyokai, to which I was proud to be elected to membership in 1998. In Japan, the art and craft of the founder is recognised as valuable in the two closely related activities of using the medium to create"craft "objects, such as the wonderful vases made by Saito Akira, and as a purely sculptural activity, the artist working directly in the medium. The making of such "flower bronzes" as Saito's continues a long tradition, whereas the use of cast metal as a sculptural medium has developed from the making of images for Buddhist temples. 
So in the light of this, how am I suggesting that my work fits into the modern world? Let us consider the uses typically made of these works. In this context, it is perhaps best to examine specific examples, rather than to generalise. As a first example, consider an abstract piece such as "First Sail". This is a very small object, and would typically be found in a living space within a home, on a display shelf, mantelpiece, table top or such. The owner, by displaying this work, in addition to enjoying the object themselves, is presumably making some statement to those who enter his/her room about their taste and interests. So the piece may be presumed to be making a statement along the lines of: "The person who owns and displays me here is a sophisticated individual who is interested in abstract art, and likes solid, durable forms, but does not want this to dominate the room" . By displaying a larger piece, one is, I suppose, shouting louder!
Short Story
Loch Lomond Trophy
Machinegunner
Short Story Prize
Loch Lomond International Challenge Trophy
Machinegunner
As a second example, consider the Short Story Prize: in this case, the piece has a very specific function, being awarded annually to the winner of a writing competition , The primary purpose in displaying this in one's home is presumably to act as a reminder of the honour bestowed in winning the prize. Another, separate reason for the existence of the piece is to act as a reminder of the generosity of the corporate body who sponsored its making. Although the form is not altogether dissimilar to the last example, the perceived function is probably very different. If we now think about a piece such as the Loch Lomond International Challenge golf trophy, this has all the attributes of the last piece, but images of it have also been extensively used in publicity about the event. This creates a particular corporate value for the work. The form of this piece is however very different, being much more conservative in theme, and further, being made of silver, it also carries the special aura of value and prestige which is associated with the material. The fourth example, the Machinegunner, is similar in many respects, but came about in an unusual way. This is a recreation from a small photograph of a piece made in the 1940's in India, and presented to the Argylls Regiment of the British Army by the Indian Army regiment who had shared an action in Italy during the Second World War. The original was lost in a fire, but the owners valued it so much as to have it remade, as faithfully as possible from the scanty evidence of its appearance. Thinking about each of these small sculptural objects then, it is clear that each carries a set of associations and values in addition to any aesthetic considerations. The particular attributes will vary from piece to piece, but they all carry a certain iconic value, being lasting and tangible representations of matters of importance to their owners.
High Heels 5
High Heels 5
At the end of the 20th Century however, with all that has happened to deconstruct practically every apparent moral certainty of the past, it is impossible to regard the manufacture of such traditional iconic objects without a certain sense of irony. Since there are no longer any "sacred cows", the argument can be made that any object which can be seen to have iconic values should in fact be regarded as a fetish, since the ideas behind the valuation of the object can be viewed as irrational. This leads to the positioning of the "High Heels" series of sculptures. An interest in technical aspects of Art-Deco Chryselephantine statuettes led to thinking about how one might approach the same themes in a way appropriate to the present.
One of the main difficulties with miniature figurative sculpture is the need to balance simplifications required by the scale and the avoidance of fussiness with an attempt to achieve a degree of liveliness and realism. I had noticed that certain forms of fetishistic (in its other, more commonly used sense) clothing produced this effect on real living people, smoothing bumps, wrinkles and detail in just the way that miniaturisation in a model demands. Furthermore, at the time I started this series, I had spent a great deal of time working on small military statuette commissions, so I was keen to work on some female figures for a change. Putting all this together, I devised the High Heels Series, as an ironic, and I hope amusing and entertaining counterpoint to some of the other projects I had in hand at that time. The series has since its inception developed its own life, as a vehicle for the exploration of various ideas about the use of materials, texture and colour.I firmly believe then in the importance of the alliance between art and craft in the making of my work. There remain many significant roles for small metal sculptures in the modern world, ranging from the domestic to their use as corporate symbols. And these objects are built to last. It is interesting to think that long after I am dead and gone, some at least of my sculptures are likely to be still around, mutely attesting to some aspects of our lives today, perhaps intriguing our descendants about their original iconic meaning

Gordon Lochhead, February1999.

"Computers and Art Casting"

The use of CAD in craft making, compared with Japanese art casting